In a bit of a shocker, Northwestern went into West Lafayette and knocked off Purdue, 64-61 in just 54 possessions. Both teams lit it up offensively by taking exemplary care of the ball, but Northwestern shot it a bit better en route to Purdue's second-worst defensive showing of the year (the worst was last week at Michigan).
As usual, it was a team effort for Northwestern, with Kevin Coble, Michael Thompson, and Craig Moore each taking 9 or 10 shots and scoring 12-16 points. Luka Mirkovic was outstanding off the bench, grabbing 8 rebounds (5 offensive) and dishing 5 assists (0 turnovers). For Purdue, E'Twaun Moore and Keaton Grant led the way with 14 apiece. Box score.
The amazing thing to me was the disparity in bench production from these two teams. Purdue just doesn't have the quality depth you'd expect from a top 25 team - the Boilermakers only had 6 players score, and nobody else reached double digit minutes. In contrast, Northwestern played 9 guys double figure minutes and got meaningful contributions from all of them. Purdue's depth was greatly damaged by the transfer of Scott Martin to Notre Dame, but the Boilers should see this issue addressed next season with the addition of a solid 4-man class (including two men over 6'8'') while losing only 7th and 8th men Marcus Green and Nemanja Calasan to graduation.
This Purdue loss means that Illinois can now lock up a second place finish with a win tonight at Penn State. Even if Illinois loses, they could still end up with the #2 seed in the conference tournament if Purdue loses at Michigan State and Penn State loses at Iowa this weekend.
For Northwestern, this may be a case of too little too late. A .500 record in-conference is still attainable (with a game at Ohio State remaining), but even that might not be enough to get Northwestern on the bubble - their RPI in that case (9-9) would be around 63rd going into the conference tournament, so they'd probably need to reach the semifinals to even get into the bubble conversation. It's not over yet for the Wildcats, but they've got tons of work to do. On the bright side, this win basically clinches, in my mind, an NIT bid.
In the other matchup, Minnesota took good enough care of the ball to knock off Wisconsin, 51-46 in 51 possessions. The Gophers have been plagued with turnover issues as of late, culminating in their season worst 31.1 TO Rate at Illinois last week. Against the Badgers (who don't generally force turnovers anyway), Minnesota kept their miscues to a reasonable level and did just enough in the other areas to score a point per possession. The big story was Minnesota's defense - only Connecticut, Michigan State, and (strangely) Iona have held Wisconsin to a lower efficiency this season. The Gophers did it with one of their calling cards - forcing turnovers - although their other calling card (blocked shots) was nowhere to be found. Minnesota blocked only one shot, and that was by 6'0'' Lawrence Westbrook. For a team that leads the nation in Block% (by a wide margin), this was a strange result, but all's well that ends well.
The aforementioned Westbrook led Minnesota with 15 points on 8 shots. Marcus Landry led the way in the losing effort with 18 points (12 shots) and 5 rebounds. Box score.
For Minnesota, this win almost locks up an NCAA bid, although they'd do well to defeat Michigan at home this weekend and remove all doubt. Wisconsin is also on the cusp of moving off the bubble, although a letdown at suddenly-competitive Indiana would certainly threaten their hopes.
Tonight, the focus shifts to Happy Valley (er, University Park), where Illinois hopes to avenge their ugly home loss to Penn State and lock up a second-place finish. The Nittany Lions have clinched a .500 finish in conference play, but could really use another win or two to get off the bubble. With their last game looming at Iowa (where the Hawkeyes have been tough, going 4-4 and losing some tight ones), Penn State should be properly motivated to defend home court. Tipoff is at 8pm CT on ESPN.