Boilers face big test against Buckeyes

Purdue opens up Big Ten play with a challenge, the unbeaten Ohio State Buckeyes.

WEST LAFAYETTE - Ready or not, it's time for the Purdue to jump into the Big Ten Conference fray, beginning Tuesday afternoon when unbeaten and third-ranked Ohio State comes to Mackey Arena.

And the question lingers: Are these Boilermakers ready to compete on a nightly basis in a league that in Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State has the nation's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 teams in the most recent poll.

As senior guard Terone Johnson said recently, this Purdue team has stretches during which it looks as if it can be near the top of the league, and then it has sequences during which it looks like a last-place team. Inconsistent play has been this club's mantra, although it may have taken a huge step in the right direction on Dec. 22 when it held on for dear life to record a much-needed 73-70 road victory at West Virginia, finishing non-league play at a respectable 10-3.

"We were able to out rebound West Virginia, so that was a good sign," Purdue coach Matt Painter said Monday morning during a media teleconference. "But we still could have put the game away earlier by finishing better and making free throws and weren't able to do it. But I thought our mindset was good.

"We had some toughness about us, but that is going to have to ramp up even more to give ourselves a chance against Ohio State. I like how we have played since we left Orlando except for the Butler game when we were really inconsistent. Hopefully, we can use this (recent play) as momentum. When you win five, six or seven games in a row, that is momentum. You want to build on one really good win on the road, but is that momentum? Time will tell."

Time for 2013 and for Purdue to inspire its fan base is running short, which is why the Tuesday game against Ohio State in the Big Ten opener is so crucial. The Buckeyes are 13-0 and rank fifth nationally in defense, allowing a stingy 55.9 points a game, led by senior point guard Aaron Craft.

Ohio State has beaten Purdue 21 times beginning with the 1998-99 season, including a 10-point victory a year ago in Mackey Arena. Plus, the Buckeyes are the only Big Ten opponent that leads the all-time series against the Boilermakers.

The difficult facet about opening Big Ten play against Ohio State is that the Buckeyes are a veteran, well tested team, while Purdue is attempting to overcome the inconsistencies that frequently accompany youth.

Toss in the fact that Ohio State plays team defense about as well as anyone in the nation, and this will be the ultimate Big Ten opening test for a Purdue team that continues to try to define itself amid stretches of strong play followed by periods that leave the coaches and Boilermaker fans shaking their collective heads.

"They are a really good defensive team as a group," Painter said of the Buckeyes. "Aaron Craft is one of the best defensive guards in the country, if not the best defensive guard in the country, especially on the basketball. He does a great job of understanding what the other team is trying to do.

"He just has really good instincts. But I would think it would be unfair to talk about their team defense and only talk about him. Shannon Scott is really good, too, and you could argue that he is the second or third best on the ball defender in our league. They have four guys on the perimeter that can really guard. They just have a really good defensive team."

Unfortunately for Purdue, it has not been a good defensive team, and that is what is so scary about this New Year's Eve Day game on Keady Court, where the Boilermakers are a perfect 8-0 this season, albeit against eight foes who don't come close to matching the kind of skill Ohio State has at both ends of the court.

Even if it fails to win this game, Purdue needs to compete at a high level and continue to show that it is making strides with lots of freshmen and sophomores playing key roles. It certainly is not the time to take a step in the wrong direction, but against Ohio State, that may be easier said than done.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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