I feel like it's safe to say that the 2014-15 Purdue Boilermakers are this year's Nebraska Cornhuskers. Like Nebraska did last season, an underwhelming first few months led to an expected bottom dwelling finish, only for both teams to get hot and be one of the most consistent teams in the conference throughout the last two months. Like Nebraska did last season, Purdue has seemingly risen from a long shot to almost a sure thing.
Purdue's rise up the ranks in the Big Ten led the Boilermakers to a tie for third place and earn a four seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which means Purdue will get a double bye and be off until Friday. That also means we have no idea who they'll play until Thursday, but the safe bet would be a rematch against an Iowa team Purdue beat at Mackey Arena back in January. The 67-63 win sparked a four game winning streak, which included three home wins over ranked teams. The upset was seemingly the turning point for the Boilermakers as Purdue was playing better, but still only 3-3 in conference play.
If the Boilers don't draw Iowa then it means they'll take on Nebraska and Penn State, which could go either way for Purdue. On one hand each team would be an easier draw and put Purdue in solid shape to reach the conference semifinals against a team that will most likely be Wisconsin. On the other hand, though, an upset loss to either team is the only thing that could potentially muddy up Purdue's NCAA Tournament odds and put themselves in a bad spot.
Heading into Chicago Purdue luckily was able to turn things around in their regular season finale, overcoming an absolutely horrible start to the Illinois game and taking complete control in the second half. It was a nice return to form after dropping two winnable road games against Michigan State and Ohio State previously and hopefully will allow the Boilers to head into the tournament with some momentum. Two of Purdue's most critical players this season have been Jon Octeus and Rapheal Davis, both of which were struggling the last few games before seemingly turning it around in the home finale. With Octeus and Davis up to speed and even guys like Basil Smotherman and P.J. Thompson starting to step up, Purdue has been picking up steam and adding even more weapons to an already well rounded arsenal.
That's what makes Purdue so deadly, especially when you realize the behemoth down low known as A.J. Hammons. After two hit or miss seasons in West Lafayette the seven footer has seemingly turned the corner and been one of Purdue's most explosive weapons on offense while also being one of the best, if not the best, defensive player in the conference. With the emergence of freshman Vince Edwards and the ability to spell Hammons with 7'2" Isaac Haas, Purdue's roster also creates considerable size advantages besides having more depth than most teams. Purdue's lineup should prove tricky for whoever they draw on Friday and if Purdue can keep it up at a similar level as they have throughout conference play they should be on their way to a semifinal showdown versus (presumably) the Badgers.
Of course Wisconsin is the one team no one wants to play in the Big Ten...well maybe unless you're Maryland or Rutgers. That being said, a loss in the semis would still be a respectable effort and straight up guarantee a NCAA bid. If Purdue gets that far, though, expect Matt Painter and company to stay hungry and give Wisconsin everything they've got. Don't forget that this Purdue team kept up with Wisconsin for 40 minutes in Madison, even though Wisconsin had a head scratching 31-7 advantage at the free throw line (Purdue actual shot 51% compared to Wisconsin's 43.6% and had 10 more field goal attempts).
Either way, Purdue's trip to Chicago is the perfect opportunity to improve their seed from a 10 or 11 spot (interestingly enough that could be detrimental if they end up at a 8/9 seed, though). Purdue has the talent and depth to hang with anyone in the Big Ten and it's going to be interesting to see how the Boilermakers represent themselves this weekend as they prepare for their return to the postseason after missing the last two NCAA Tournaments.