Purdue won a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 14 years last season, but it knows repeating will be difficult.
The 12th-ranked Boilermakers open conference play Tuesday afternoon against Michigan, which is looking to win eight in a row for the first time in eight years.
Purdue (11-1) went 14-4 in Big Ten play last season to clinch a share of the conference regular-season crown along with Ohio State and Michigan State. It was the first time the Boilermakers won at least a share since the 1995-96 season.
Coach Matt Painter said it’s going to be another tough battle in the conference this season. Four teams are ranked in the Top 25, including three in the top 15.
“Every game is difficult, and there’s not a team in our league that’s not talking about these first five or six games,” he said. “It’s a grind. It’s a long season, and injuries will affect some things, as will the timing of when you play some people. You have to be hooked up 18 times like it’s the Big Ten championship.”
Painter’s team has won six straight since a 65-54 loss to Richmond on Nov. 27 in the Chicago Invitational.
The Boilermakers are coming off a 77-52 victory over Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne last Tuesday. JaJuan Johnson had 24 points and a season-high 13 rebounds while D.J. Byrd scored a career-high 15 points in the second half. The team combined to go 10 of 22 from 3-point range, with Byrd making all five attempts from beyond the arc after the break.
Johnson heads into Big Ten play averaging 26.7 points over his last three games.
The Boilermakers hope Byrd can emerge as a third scorer to go with Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. Byrd scored in double figures in two of his first four games but a shoulder injury had limited him recently.
“It’s a great thing for us,” Painter said of Byrd’s success. “For him to be able to make shots and stretch the defense … it was great for his confidence.”
Purdue ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 55.5 points per game and will face another strong defensive team in Michigan (10-2), which is allowing 56.6 points.
The Wolverines, who went 7-11 in Big Ten play last season, played well against their non-conference slate, albeit an easy schedule that included teams such as NAIA Concordia and South Carolina Upstate.
Michigan did nearly upset then-No. 9 Syracuse last month before losing 53-50.
The Wolverines’ seven-game win streak is their longest since a seven-game run to open the 2006-07 season. They are coming off an 87-71 win over Bryant on Thursday in which they weren’t able to pull away until the second half.
Darius Morris had 26 points and 12 assists and Tim Hardaway Jr. added 20 points. The two combined to go 8 of 14 from 3-point range.
Morris is averaging 18.8 points in the last five games.
Michigan’s schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher. It hosts No. 3 Kansas on Jan. 9 and No. 2 Ohio State three days later. The Wolverines haven’t won in eight in a row since a 13-game run Dec. 11, 2002-Jan. 26, 2003.
Purdue beat Michigan 69-59 at home in the only meeting last season, but lost its previous visit to Crisler Arena, 87-78 on Feb. 26, 2009.
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