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Purdue hoops flying high atop the national scene

A week later than the historical moment should have taken place, Purdue ascended to the top of The Associated Press men’s college basketball rankings for the first time Monday.

For 379 appearances in the AP Top 25, Purdue had been ranked no higher than No. 2. The mantle of “best” team never to be rated No. 1 now falls to Maryland, which has 423 weeks in The Associated Press poll without reaching the top.

It’s heady times in West Lafayette. Purdue was favored Thursday night at Rutgers to improve to 9-0 for only the fifth time since 1940, when Crawfordsville legend Piggy Lambert coached the Boilermakers to a Big Ten championship.

With the history of Boilermaker sports in mind, it’s usually never a good idea to look ahead. That said, the school record of 14 consecutive victories to start the season is in play. That’s a mark shared by Glenn Robinson’s 1993-94 Boilers and the 2009-10 Purdue team that will be forever remembered for what could have been if Robbie Hummel had not torn his ACL at Minnesota.

The next six games for Purdue are at Rutgers (4-4), vs. North Carolina State (6-2) at the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational in Brooklyn, vs. Butler (6-3) in the Crossroads Classic, and home games with Incarnate Word (1-8), Nicholls (5-3) and Wisconsin (7-1).

How did the Boilermakers reach No. 1? Several reasons:

  • Purdue has outscored its opponents by 77 points at the free throw line, best in the nation.
  • The Boilermakers are just one of two teams nationally (Colorado State) to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent at the free throw line.
  • Opponents haven’t been able to focus on stopping one player in Purdue’s offense. Eight of Purdue’s 10 regulars are making at least 40 percent of their 3-point attempts. The exceptions are senior Eric Hunter Jr. and Zach Edey, who provides other things to worry about at 7-foot-4.

Big Ten bowl forecast

Let’s get the preliminary gripes out of the way before going into my Big Ten Conference bowl picks.

If you recall last week’s column and how the name on the front of the jersey matters in college basketball? It’s even more important in college football.

Penn State, where a 7-5 record was good enough to earn coach James Franklin a guaranteed $75 million contract over the next 10 years, has no business being in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Purdue were more deserving.

But thanks to the brand built up for decades under Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions are the best known Big Ten school not named Ohio State or Michigan. Potential ticket sales and TV ratings drove this selection.

No tears will be shed for Iowa, which ended up with a nice consolation prize of facing Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. This is probably the Big Ten’s best bet for a bowl victory against the SEC.

Which brings us to another Big Ten-SEC matchup. Why Purdue was sent back to the Music City Bowl in Nashville to play basically a road game against Tennessee comes down to Wisconsin having Barry Alvarez in the Big Ten front office.

Alvarez, the longtime football coach and athletic director in Madison, is still looking after his school. The Badgers got the Las Vegas Bowl berth against Arizona State, a beatable foe even for an offense that struggles to score points.

Minnesota (8-4), which ended up in the next-to-lowest bowl game in the Big Ten pecking order despite beating Wisconsin in the regular season finale, should have been the next choice for the Music City Bowl.

Speaking of the Gophers, they are up first in the Big Ten bowl batting order. The Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix on Dec. 28 gives fans a first time matchup against West Virginia.

Minnesota is 2-0 under coach P.J. Fleck in bowl games and this matchup is favorable to make it three in a row. West Virginia (6-6) is solid against the run but is in the lower half of the NCAA defensive rankings against the pass. Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and receiver Chris Autman-Bell could have a big day.

Maryland (6-6) achieved bowl eligibility on the final day and were rewarded with a Pinstripe Bowl matchup with a Virginia Tech program that fired coach Justin Fuente with two weeks to go in the regular season.

The Terrapins don’t play defense, allowing a staggering 32 points a game. Virginia Tech is not a good offensive team, ranking 92nd nationally at just under 25 points a game. I’ll go out on a limb and say Maryland gives the Big Ten bowl victory No. 2.

Purdue leads off a Big Ten tripleheader on Dec. 30. The good news is that Tennessee is vulnerable to the pass, even more so now that top cornerback Alontae Taylor has departed to prepare for the NFL Draft. That makes the Vols even with Purdue, since it is unlikely Big Ten Receiver of the Year David Bell will play after declaring his early departure for the NFL Draft.

The same goes for Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis, whose relentless pursuit of quarterbacks will be missed. First one to 40 might win this game.

No. 10 Michigan State rode the back of the nation’s second-leading rusher, Kenneth Walker III, to a 10-2 record and a New Year’s Six bowl berth against ACC champion Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.

The 12th-ranked Panthers (11-2) will be without offensive coordinator Brent Whipple, who resigned to take the same job at Nebraska. Pitt has the sixth-best rushing defense in the country.

Michigan State has never lost to Pitt in seven meetings but that streak is in jeopardy due to its inability to defend the pass. Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett has thrown for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns.

Wisconsin (8-4) should roll sevens in Las Vegas against Arizona State (8-4) thanks to the nation’s top-ranked defense. The Sun Devils are no slouches defensively, either, but the Badgers have enough offensive firepower to make the difference in a low-scoring affair.

Don’t look for many points in the Orange Bowl, where second-ranked Michigan (12-1) and third-ranked Georgia (12-1) face off on New Year’s Eve for the right to lose to Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game.

Will Georgia be able to bounce back from a crushing loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game? Will Michigan score against a defense that hadn’t given up more than 17 points in a game until Alabama shredded it for 41? I see a nightmare ratings scenario in ESPN’s future, when it has to sell a rematch of the SEC final.

Penn State will be playing an Arkansas team in Tampa that won eight regular season games for the first time since 2011, earning a No. 21 ranking and its first bowl appearance in five years. The Razorbacks have not beaten a Big Ten team in four bowl matchups.

Injuries limited Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford’s effectiveness much of the season but when healthy he passed for 2,912 yards and 20 touchdowns. With all the talented defensive ends in the Big Ten, Arnold Ebiketie almost went unnoticed despite 9.5 sacks.

The day’s second Big Ten-SEC matchup, at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, will come down to a simple fact: can No. 15 Iowa (10-3) score points defensively against No. 22 Kentucky (9-3)? That’s because quarterbacks Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla have been less than impressive all season. With a plus-13 turnover margin, only Middle Tennessee State has been better than the Hawkeyes.

A Kentucky victory will bring coach Mark Stoops within one win of tying Bear Bryant as the school’s winningest football coach. It would be with great irony that victory No. 59 would come against the school for which Stoops starred from 1987-89.

The best non-playoff matchup has to be No. 6 Ohio State and No. 11 Utah in the Rose Bowl. Pasadena is a nice consolation prize for the Buckeyes (10-2), whose championship dreams went up in smoke with their first loss to Michigan in nine years.

Ohio State still possesses the nation’s best offense at 551 yards and 45.5 points a game. Freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud has a pair of 1,000-yard receivers to choose from (Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba) and a third in Chris Olave who needs 64 yards to reach 1,000. Another freshman, TreVeyon Henderson, has rushed for 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Utah (10-3) closed the regular season with a six-game winning streak and a 38-10 rout of Oregon for the Pac-12 championship. The Utes beat Oregon twice this season, while Ohio State’s other defeat was a 35-28 loss to the Ducks in Columbus.

Time of possession could be the second-most important statistic next to the score. Utah has a solid running game led by Tavion Thomas (1,041 yards, 20 TDs) and Ohio State can’t score if it doesn’t have the football.

I’ll project a 4-5 bowl record for the Big Ten, but won’t be surprised if Purdue, Iowa and Michigan win to tilt that postseason mark well above .500.

Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Cou­rier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.