I’m reversing course on my late December forecast that the Boilermakers won’t make the Big Dance for two reasons. One, I think sophomore point guard Ronnie Johnson is about to leap forward and become one of the Big Ten premier guards. The North Central product — who reminds this sportswriter of Memphis Grizzles point guard Mike Conley, another cat-quick left-hander who starred at Lawrence North High School and Ohio State before being taken No. 4 overall in the 2007 NBA draft — recently had a five-game stretch where he averaged 14 points, 3.6 assists and 5.6 free-throw attempts per game. Johnson is forcing the action on offense, whether it be drawing whistles in the paint or dishing to his teammates. Opponents also have to respect Johnson from beyond the arc now that he’s shooting 39 percent from 3. Need more proof? Purdue entered Tuesday’s clash at Northwestern averaging 76 points, its highest average in 16 seasons. My second reason for believing in the black and gold is the Boilermakers — whose roster contains 10 freshmen and sophomores — are ready to win some meaningful games on the road. Matt Painter’s crew is 2-2 in road games after losing a 63-60 double-OT heartbreaker to Northwestern, but still owns wins at West Virginia and Illinois. Last winter, the Boilers went just 3-6 in Big Ten road games. Purdue has seven games against ranked conference teams left, and four of those are on the road. Let’s run through those ranked contests real quick: Jan. 30 at No. 21 Michigan; Feb. 8 at No. 17 Ohio State; March 1 at No. 10 Iowa; and March 5 at No. 9 Wisconsin. I say the Boilermakers split those ranked road games and finish their conference slate with a 10-8 record, a good enough mark in the rugged B10 to earn a Big Dance bid.
— sportswriter Grant Freking
Let’s assume all five of the currently ranked Big Ten teams make the NCAA Tournament: No. 3 Michigan State, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 Iowa, slumping but still safe No. 17 Ohio State and No. 21 Michigan. Unranked Minnesota, at 14-5 overall, 3-3 in the conference and with a solid RPI of 31, will give the Big Ten an easy sixth bid. Northwestern and Nebraska, despite recent wins over the Boilermakers and Buckeyes, respectively, are struggling to break .500 overall, and Penn State ... is a good football school. That leaves us with IU and Purdue battling for a seventh Big 10 ticket to the Big Dance. Of course, both or neither of our home-state squads might be playing post-conference tourney. If it’s neither, Indiana (the state) could be 0-for-Selection Sunday (March 16), with Butler, Notre Dame, Ball State, Evansville and IUPUI likely needing to win their respective conference tourneys to make it into springtime basketball. Fear not, cream-and-crimson fans, the Hoosiers will make it. Tuesday’s loss at Michigan State was a missed opportunity, but IU’s remaining schedule presents plenty of chances for a young, improving squad to get over the hump. The Hoosiers’ next six games are Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State and Purdue. And, with Michigan visiting Bloomington, all six of those games are winnable. Iowa and Ohio State will also make trips to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (might as well get used to it), giving IU additional opportunities to pad its resume. Purdue’s upcoming schedule is a gauntlet, however. The Boilers have played two squads that are currently ranked. Seven of their final 13 games are against the nation’s Top 25. In Yogi We Trust.
— sports editor Brian Harmon