Minnesota hosts Purdue at 2 p.m. at Williams Arena. Watch live on Big Ten Network, or listen live on 1500-a.m.
Purdue is, without notable comparison, the Big Ten's most physical team. Minnesota, on the other hand, couldn't be much farther from that descriptor. The Gophers are one of the smaller teams in the Big Ten, and aren't great at drawing fouls -- ranked 249th nationally in free throw attempts to field goal attempts (.34 FTA per FGA), according to kenpom.com.
But Purdue is just so physical, and they're big and they're strong. You'd better be prepared to get knocked around a little bit.
But Minnesota can at least take comfort in the fact that it has played the tough Boilermakers tight in each of the last three games.
"We lost two of those," coach Richard Pitino reminded me with a smirk. Indeed, the Gophers did, and they almost lost all three when Purdue came back from 19 down in the first of the three matchups -- at Williams Arena -- too fall by a single possession, 82-79. In Minnesota's trip to West Lafayette last year, the Gophers fell in triple overtime. Then Minnesota led by 11 in this season's excursion before the Boilermakers came back to win 72-68.
The point is that although the Gophers seem to far and away have a disadvantage in that area, they haven't been out of the game with Purdue since Pitino has been in town.
"We're not an overly physical team and they are and we've done a good job of not backing down from that," the coach said. "I thought we competed with them, like I didn't think we got out-toughed or out-physicaled, and they're a big, strong team."
Before the start of the conference season, the Boilermakers looked unprepared for the rigors of the Big Ten. A loss to Gardner Webb in a guarantee game compounded a three-game losing streak to finish the non-conference schedule 8-5. But Purdue's only Big Ten losses have come on the road to No. 5 Wisconsin and Illinois and at home vs. No. 17 Maryland.
"Everybody kind of counted them out -- not us but certainly people thought they were struggling," Pitino said. "But I knew that [coach] Matt [Painter] would get them right. They're playing very, very hard, very physical."
In the conference, only Maryland gets to the line at a better rate than Purdue does. The Boilermakers, who are now on a four game winning streak -- three of those against ranked teams -- are ranked 38th nationally with .44 free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts. Over the course of the season, Purdue has taken 72 more free throws than its opponents and made 41 more.
"That's an unbelievable stat," Pitino said.
What's more, the Boilermakers are 13-0 when shooting more free throws than their opponent in a game. Last time out, Minnesota sent Purdue to the line eight times in the last 5:28 -- the Boilermakers made all of the shots -- while drawing just one foul in that frame (DeAndre Mathieu made one of two).
The Gophers will also have to deal with a pair of effective 7-foot centers in junior AJ Hammons -- who is averaging 10.8 points and 6.1 rebounds a game and had seven blocks in Purdue's 60-58 wub over Ohio State on Wednesday -- and 7-foot-3 freshman Isaac Haas (8.9 points; four rebounds).
"If you let them catch it deep, you're in trouble," Pitino said. "You can do as many trap-down schemes as you want, they catch it deep and they don't dribble. They go quick, they don't dribble. So you can't let them bury you."
After playing a lot of zone defense to start the year, Purdue has mostly switched to man-to-man and as a result is locking down the perimeter in a way it struggled to do earlier in the season. In the last four games, the Boilermakers have held opponents to 18-for-66 shooting from beyond the arc (27.3 percent). "They've just flipped the switch," Pitino said. "They were giving up a lot of three-point shots before our game last time and they are just playing great defense. So obviously, [Painter has] gotten to them."