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  • The Boilermakers showed why they shouldn't have been written off earlier in the season, picking up a marquee win that will resonate into March.
By Molly Geary
January 27, 2019

In the end, the 73–63 final score in Purdue’s home win over Michigan State on Sunday represented not how the overall game went, but a tale of two halves in West Lafayette.

After the Boilermakers raced out to a 37–19 halftime lead that would balloon to as many as 22 in the second half, the Spartans showed off why they entered the day as the country’s No. 6 team by taking control and reeling off a 19–3 run that helped them close to within five with 4:34 to play.

But that was the last field goal Michigan State would make. In a game that Purdue led wire-to-wire, it held off the Spartans’ charge to earn its clear best win of the season, continuing a run by the Boilermakers that should have them vaulting back into the national conversation this week.

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Here are three thoughts from Purdue’s big win:

1. Purdue Has Become the Team Most Expected

Those who wrote off the Boilermakers after a 6–5 start to the season did so unwisely. While that was far from how Purdue wanted its first five weeks of the season to go, the only real head-scratching loss in that stretch was to Notre Dame. Losing to Virginia Tech (by five) on a neutral court and to a red-hot Michigan team (by 19), Florida State (by one) and Texas (by four) all on the road was hardly a reason to sound the alarm on Purdue’s potential.

Don’t forget, this is a team that lost four senior starters from last season’s Sweet 16 squad, even if it did bring back the dynamic Carsen Edwards. The rest of the supporting cast needed time to adjust to both new roles and a large expansion in playing time, but the Boilermakers would have had a very different early-season narrative had even just one or two of their close losses gone the other way.

Since the start of the New Year, though, Purdue has been rolling. Its won six of its last seven Big Ten games, and just avenged the only loss in that period, a 77–59 defeat to MSU in East Lansing on Jan. 8. Other victories in that stretch include a 16-point win over Iowa at home, an overtime win over Wisconsin in Madison and double-digit wins over Indiana, Ohio State and Rutgers.

All along this season, though, analytics have been on Purdue’s side. Even when it was amidst its sub-optimal start, the farthest it ever fell on kenpom.com was No. 19, after starting the year at No. 18. It entered Sunday’s game all the way up to No. 8, and was No. 10 in the NCAA’s NET rankings to boot.

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What’s been the biggest difference in Purdue’s surge? That brings us to takeaway No. 2…

2. The Boilermakers’ Supporting Cast Is Stepping Up

The achievements of Purdue junior point guard Carsen Edwards are vast. He’s an All-America candidate who entered Sunday averaging 24.7 points per game, the clear engine that makes the Boilermakers’ offense go. No one in Big Ten play takes more shots while on the floor than Edwards does for Purdue, and only six players nationally top his 37.1% mark for the season.

So consider how encouraging it must have been for the home team on Sunday when Edwards went scoreless for nearly the first 13 minutes of the first half, yet Purdue already led by 12. By the time the first half had ended, Edwards had just three points on eight shots, yet the Boilermakers had an 18-point lead. Instead of Edwards being depended on to both spark and produce the majority of the offense, six of his teammates had already scored in the first 20 minutes, including Aaron Wheeler going 3-for-3 from three and Matt Haarms making all four of his field-goal attempts.

If Purdue is going to continue its run in the Big Ten and make noise this March, it’s going to need people beyond Edwards to step up offensively like they did Sunday. That could be in the form of Ryan Cline, who had 17 against the Spartans and hit 5-of-10 from the perimeter, in Wheeler and Haarms, who missed just one total shot off the bench, or in freshman big man Trevion Williams, who only had four against MSU but has emerged as a scoring option of late.

Defensively, the Boilermakers also made serious strides on Sunday. Going up against what was the nation’s most-efficient offense and a team that is a monster in transition, Purdue held its ground, a promising sign considering it ranked 58th in kenpom defensive efficiency. Behind an all-out effort and swarming effect, Purdue held Michigan State to a dismal 0.62 points per possession in the first half, and to 39.3% shooting for the game. The length of the 7’3” Haarms gave the Spartans problems in the paint, while Purdue grabbed seven steals and added five blocks on the day.

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3. No One in the Big Ten Is Infallible

One weekend after Michigan lost its first game of the year, and its first Big Ten game since early February 2018, Michigan State’s streak of 21 straight Big Ten regular-season wins was snapped in West Lafayette. Every team now has at least one conference loss in 2018–19, with the Michigan schools still set to face each other twice, the first of which isn't for almost a month.

Nothing about Sunday’s defeat should have the Spartans hanging their heads—they were in one of the league’s toughest road environments and they overcame a huge early hole to make a valiant comeback attempt. They were also not only playing without junior starter Joshua Langford again—who has now missed eight straight games—but also without reserve wing Kyle Ahrens.

At 9–1 in the league, Michigan State still controls its own destiny in the Big Ten (so do the Wolverines), and there are plenty of reasons to think it can win the conference. Even after the loss, the Spartans are ranked No. 3 in kenpom’s efficiency ranking, joining Virginia and Duke as the only teams to rank in the top 10 nationally on both offense and defense. They’ve got an All-America candidate Cassius Winston leading them at point guard, a strong inside-out game between him and big men Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman and a 41% perimeter shooter in senior Matt McQuaid. Don’t expect Sunday’s defeat to keep Michigan State down for long.

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