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The Three Key Non-Conference Opponents To Keep The Purdue Boilermakers On Track

Strength is not necessarily the name of the game for Purdue's schedule, but there is a hot streak to keep intact against the ACC, and there is a growing necessity for a win in Nap Town.

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The Purdue Boilermakers ended a two-year absence from the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15, but one certainly could not thank the non-conference schedule for the at-large berth. The two strongest wins last season were against BYU, who Purdue met in the 5th place game of the Maui Invitational, and N.C. State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Those two wins were negated, however, thanks to home losses to North Florida and Gardner-Webb. Matt Painter and crew finished the non-conference schedule at 8-5 and were saved by a 12-6 conference record. Looking at the upcoming season's non-conference slate, it honestly leaves a lot to be desired in terms of strength. Though if Purdue can avoid pitfalls before the calendar turns to 2016 and perform well in the following three games, the Big Ten should provided an SOS boost when it comes to seeding in March.

#1. at Pittsburgh (B1G/ACC)

The toughest opponent in November for the Boilermakers is a non-guaranteed game against Florida in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, but there is a good chance that Purdue will enter the Peterson Events Center at 6-0. Purdue enters the 2015 edition of the challenge riding a 6-game winning streak in the event, two games better than any other team's current streak.

As for Pitt, coming off of an NIT first round exit, the Panthers are hoping three graduate transfers and one JUCO can help bridge a year where the team signed just one high school recruit. The Panthers should provide a solid size battle for A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. This may also be the first real look at Caleb Swanigan for a larger national audience. On top of that, this will be the first road game of the year  for Purdue.

#2. vs. Butler (Crossroads Classic)

The battle for the state of Indiana is on as the top four programs all appear to be on the rise, The state has become a hotbed for recruiting, with each of these four schools trying to keep the state's talent close to home. Notre Dame got the last laugh last season, advancing to the Elite 8 in a Midwest region that featured all four of the Crossroads Classic participants.

(I feel like I am suffering deja vu after writing out that paragraph, but have no idea why.)

For as good as Purdue has been in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the team has been awful in the Crossroads Classic. The Boilermakers are 0-4 since the event started in 2011. Kellen Dunham and the Bulldogs will provide a challenge outside the arc, the spot where Purdue absolutely needs someone to step up and alleviate the pressure on the Boilermakers' three key aforementioned big men. There is little reason to believe Butler won't be back in the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and this would certainly fall in the "Quality Wins" column of the resume.

#3. vs. Vanderbilt

The Commodores are fresh off of an appearance in the quarterfinals in the NIT. Damian Jones returns following a 14.4 points, 6.5 rebounds per game year (both best on the team), and should provide a solid challenge. Additionally, Vanderbilt's solid recruiting class from a year ago, led by Riley LaChance, has its first year of college ball under its belt. This is also a team that Purdue lost to by 10 on the road last season.

If you're someone who likes to look at an NIT run as an indication of a team being on the upswing going into the next season, Vandy may be one of those teams to take a long look at. This game occurs just three days after what undoubtedly will be a hard-fought game against Butler.

Overall

There is no reason to expect less than 11 wins out of the Purdue's non conference schedule this season, 9 being the absolute floor. Going a perfect 3-0 in the games listed above would even give the Boilermakers a great opportunity to enter the Big Ten schedule undefeated. Then again, Purdue did stumble a few times last year when it looked like they had a "sure" win, so taking care of business will be essential.