I noted in my write-up of the Iowa game that Purdue's next five games were a tall order, which got me to thinking (and let's be honest, how often does that happen?)... what about beyond those five games? Does it get easier? Is this one of those key stretches that every good team needs to struggle/grow through? So I looked ahead. And then I wished I didn't. So now I want to share those concerns with you.
B-dowd and I have had some spirited debate about the risks of this team actually not making the tournament. I don't think there's any chance of them missing it, but then maybe that's because I don't want to consider that possibility. I'll say it: Rob, Ryne and Lew ending their careers at Purdue in the NIT would be crushing. But what's it going to take? Let's look.
I think it's important not to look at schedules as a whole because it can be overwhelming. You're not playing those games all at once and you might catch a team at just the right time (like oh, say, Nebraska did last night -- zing). So it makes sense to look at definable chunks of the season. Last year featured a brutal stretch against ranked conference foes and difficult road venues that looked ridiculously daunting but that our boys did well through and made us proud. They didn't win the conference, but they made OSU actually look in their mirror and that was something of an accomplishment last year given how dominant the Bucks were.
So let's look at the next five.
@MSU (#9) -- While playing at Breslin is never an easy task, I do feel like this collection of Boilers is at least not wide-eyed about it. In fact, you could argue this team almost never goes into a venue and has lost before they enter. I think this sometimes happens at Mackey and other barns, but one of the things I've loved about the Painter era is that no matter how badly stacked the odds appear, there's always a chance and blowout losses are rare.
vs Mich (#19) -- Similarly, I don't think the Boilers will be intimidated or concerned (beyond the required level of respect) by the Wolverines. They're a very good team but they have their letdowns and these Belein teams have seemed to have trouble keeping their composure in intense road locations.
@ Northwestern -- We all know the Cats tend to play well against Purdue and when this is your lone game against a non-ranked opponent in a five game stretch, well, it's not easy. It's a road game and it's one that is your prototypical letdown game, especially if the Boilers come away with wins vs MSU and UM. In fact, if those two wins happen, I would wager a lollipop with you that Purdue comes out flat in Evanston and loses. If they are 3-0 through this stretch after NU, then good things are coming.
vs IU (#13) -- Sure, it's a cliche, but it's true in this case: the records don't matter. They never do. These programs and fan bases pretty much loathe each other and the fun thing is that both readily admit it. It's not that douchey Notre Dame hatred where they pretend they don't care about Purdue. IU fans do care about Purdue and shutting all of us up...and they should. We've said over and over that we want this rivalry back where it belongs. This game will be the most intense we've seen between these two in arguably a decade.
@OSU (#6) -- OSU's quiet arena scares no one, but OSU's talent scares everyone, or at least it should. The Boilers have had some nightmares in Columbus and this is the game I'm most worried about in this stretch.
In my opinion, the Boilers must go 3-2 in this five game stretch. Beat MSU or UM, beat Northwestern and beat IU. Then if one of the others goes your way, terrific. Any worse than that and I'll be on the worried bandwagon.
I think it's interesting that the Boilers essentially alternate home and road games for the rest of the way, with the exception of the Nebraska game slotted in there. And if you are concerned about playing four of five games against ranked teams, if we broaden the viewfinder, we learn that the Boilers pay eight of their last dozen against currently ranked squads.
All that said, our Boilers are a half game out of first in the bananas Big Ten. The conference is there for the taking, every team has flaws and every night produces results no one can predict. It's going to be nuts but it'll be fun.