WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — West Virginia has landed in Big Ten country for its final nonconference game of the regular season. Come Saturday the Mountaineers will sample the insanity of Mackey Arena, where Purdue is 106-19 during the Matt Painter era (or is it the post-Gene Keady era?). One of those wins, of course, was a 77-62 thumping of WVU on New Year’s Day 2010.
Here’s a primer on what portends to be a slow-paced grinder of a game, with both teams ranking in the bottom half of Division I in shooting percentage and possessions per 40 minutes. The Boilermakers are 3-point favorites:
1. Mirror images
This series has delivered a marquee game the past two seasons, but Saturday it gives us two teams scrapping for their postseason lives.
Purdue, currently saddled with a 115 RPI, has reached six straight NCAA tourneys under Matt Painter, and WVU has advanced to the tournament all five seasons under Bob Huggins. While Saturday’s winner can cling to hope of beginning a second-half surge, the loser will be in dire straights. West Virginia has a minimum of 16 games left and Purdue 15, meaning each team — even to simply enter the NCAA bubble discussion — can probably afford no more than four losses the rest of the way.
“Obviously when you put yourself in the hole like we are, every game is so important,” said Painter, whose Boilermakers must overcome nonleague losses to Bucknell (RPI 40), Notre Dame (53), Villanova (68), Xavier (81) and Oregon State (139). “We’re a long way from being in that position.”
Huggins used simple math to project an NCAA bid for the Mountaineers, whose No. 78 RPI is bolstered by playing a tougher schedule.
“We’re halfway through our year,” he said. “We won eight in the first half, so if we can win 10 in the second half, maybe win a game or two in the Big 12 tournament, and I think we’re fine.”
2. Playing rotations in constant rotation
Experimentation is generally a sign of teams in trouble. To wit: Purdue and West Virginia each have cycled 11 players into the starting lineup this season.
“They’re searching to get some consistency just like us,” said Painter. “With that you have different lineups, you have different guys playing, and you’re just trying to find the right pieces on each night to help your team win.”
The latest newcomer to the Mountaineers starting five is freshman Eron Harris, who overcame a timid first half at Iowa State to finish with 17 points in Wednesday’s 69-67 loss. With Huggins proclaiming a switch to a four-guard lineup, Harris — and his team-high 41-percent shooing from 3-point range — figures to be a mainstay.
Harris will be playing an hour away from his high school campus in Indianapolis, which means plenty of relatives and friends at Mackey Arena.
“Some guys kind of relish that and other guys I think put too much pressure on themselves,” said Huggins, cueing up one of his trademark yesteryear stories as an illustration. “I had Darnell Burton (at Cincinnati) when we played the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in Lexington, and he was from Lexington, and the only 3 that he made the whole tournament was a lob that he tried to throw that he accidentally banked in.”
3. The Brothers Johnson
Purdue features one of eight brotherly combos in Division I this season, with junior guard Terone Johnson leading the team at 13.4 points per game and freshman Ronnie Johnson leading in assists (3.5). The duo led Indianapolis North Central to the Class 4A high school state championship in 2010, the year the older Johnson was the runner-up for Indiana’s coveted Mr. Basketball, finishing behind current Ohio State All-American Deshaun Thomas.
Terone scored a season-high 25 in a 68-61 upset of Illinois and finished with a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double in a 63-57 loss to Xavier. He’s an erratic foul shooter, however, barely above 50 percent on 216 career attempts. (Purdue ranks 313th out of 345 D-I teams in foul shooting at 62 percent.)
Ronnie averages 9.2 points in 29 minutes per game and has reached double figures in his last three Big Ten contests. His best performances this season: 12 points and nine assists in an 89-81 loss to Villanova and 10 points and seven rebounds in a 73-61 win at Clemson. He’s not much of a 3-point threat, however, just 3-of-26 this season.
4. Hammons manning the middle
In 7-foot center A.J. Hammons, the Boilermakers have a consensus top-100 recruit who is blossoming into a force. He and Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel are the only freshmen in the six power conferences averaging at least 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks per game. Hammons actually leads the Big Ten at 3.4 blocks per contest, generating scuttlebutt that he might evolve into a one-and-done player.
“He has huge potential, but let’s not get the cart before the horse,” Painter said. “Let’s have a good academic year, let’s help Purdue win.”
As you would expect from a coach trying to develop a talented man-child, Painter said Hammons must learn to give maximum effort and refine several facets of his game.
“He’s going to have to sprint every single time. He’s going to have to learn to play post defense better. He’s going to have to learn to play ball-screens better. He’s going to have to cut down on turnovers,” Painter said.
“It’s not just about scoring points with him. He needs to get more offensive rebounds. He needs to be in a stance and prepared to play defense, because his goal’s not just to make the NBA, it’s to stay in the NBA.”
5. Healthy Mountaineers
After playing short-handed in Ames, Huggins suggested West Virginia could have its full roster available Saturday. Terry Henderson, who didn’t travel to Iowa State with a lower back injury, practiced the last two days, and Gray Browne (sprained right ankle) was working out in the practice facility Friday after sitting out Thursday’s practice.