Purdue will have a new experience in its storied basketball history Thursday night when it plays its first game ever as the No. 1 team in the country.
The Boilermakers (8-0, 1-0 Big Ten), who ascended to the top spot Monday, will face struggling Rutgers (4-4, 0-1) in Piscataway, N.J.
“Maybe it shines a little more light on us” in terms of publicity, Purdue coach Matt Painter said on his weekly radio show. “It’s a good problem to have (that) people are gunning for you, but if we were second, third, fourth or fifth they would still be gunning for us. You’re still in that position.”
Painter noted the Boilermakers have lost their last three games against the Scarlet Knights.
“People don’t realize that, but I do,” he said. “We know we’re going to have our hands full there.”
Purdue reached No. 1 after holding off Iowa 77-70 Friday at home. The Hawkeyes drew within two points with 2:33 to go before Purdue finished the game on a 5-0 run. As the Boilermakers closed in on the victory, their fans began to chant, “No. 1, No. 1.”
As for the ranking’s effect on his players, Painter said, “I told our guys, ‘It’s a good thing, I’m proud of them, but let’s have a good practice.’ We have to get better in certain areas if we want to keep winning games.”
Rutgers could say the same thing, and with much more emphasis. The Scarlet Knights lost to Illinois 86-51 on Friday, the same night Purdue held off Iowa. Rutgers has struggled against a mostly soft schedule, and coach Steve Pikiell said Rutgers “didn’t bring any toughness” after the loss to the Illini, in which they were outrebounded 47-33.
“We’ve got to play much better than we’ve played (this season),” Pikiell said of the challenge of facing Purdue. “I think we have a good game plan and hopefully, we will be healthier going into this opportunity for us.”
However, star guard Geo Baker (hamstring) still is day-to-day and has missed the past three games. Pikiell also said a flu bug was sweeping through the team and that “a couple of them are the young guys and a couple of them are the experienced guys.”
Pikiell, of course, is wary of 7-4 Purdue center Zach Edey (15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds) and the Boilermakers’ outside game. Purdue shoots 44 percent from 3-point range.
“They can beat you from the perimeter and they can beat you around the basket, too,” Pikiell said. “They have as good depth as anyone in the country.”
“I need to get Geo back on the court,” he added. “His experience, his ability to create, his leadership, we need to get him healthy.”
Without Baker (11.2 points, 4.0 assists), Rutgers has relied too much on Ron Harper Jr., who is averaging 14.8 points but shooting only 39.8 percent.
The Scarlet Knights have beaten Purdue at home each of the past two seasons.
“Our home court has been a huge advantage for us and we need it to be (Thursday),” Pikiell said.
–Field Level Media