A nine-game winning streak has put Purdue atop the tightly packed Big Ten, with a contest against its closest pursuer looming. Overlooking Minnesota before that matchup could prove costly.
The third-ranked Boilermakers try to beat the Golden Gophers for a fifth consecutive time Wednesday night at Williams Arena.Purdue (23-3, 11-3) leads the conference by one-half game over No. 14 Michigan State and ninth-ranked Ohio State, with No. 17 Wisconsin 1 1/2 games back.The Boilermakers host the Spartans on Sunday in a showdown that could determine the Big Ten champion. Michigan State is idle until then.Purdue won the first matchup of the season with Michigan State, and getting by the Spartans again would put the Boilermakers in prime position to earn the top seed for the conference tournament. They host Indiana next Wednesday before visiting last-place Penn State three days later.While the Big Ten title is in the balance, coach Matt Painter is also aware a top seed in the NCAA tournament is at stake, and looking past a Minnesota squad that is 13-2 at home could ruin those chances."We've been able to put ourselves in the mix," Painter said. "We've just got to win on the road. I think our guys have stepped up and done something special to be in this position. To win nine straight is a compliment to our guys."Purdue's nine-game Big Ten winning streak is its longest since an 11-game run from Jan. 12-Feb. 16, 2008.The Boilermakers moved closer to matching that streak Saturday, beating Illinois 75-65 behind 22 points and 12 rebounds from Robbie Hummel. The junior forward totaled 13 points on 4-for-13 shooting in the previous two games.Hummel is fifth in the conference with 7.2 rebounds per game and his 15.8 points rank second to teammate E'Twaun Moore's 17.2.The two players each had 18 points and Hummel pulled down 11 rebounds in a 79-60 home victory over the Gophers on Jan. 5. Purdue has won four in a row in the series and took the most recent matchup 70-62 at Minneapolis last Jan. 22.Minnesota (16-10, 7-7) gets to play the role of spoiler while it tries to improve its chances of an NCAA tournament berth.The Gophers have outscored opponents by an average of 20.8 points at Williams Arena. They defeated the then-No. 14 Badgers 68-52 on Thursday and beat the Hoosiers 81-58 two days later, shooting 55.4 percent from the field.Lawrence Westbrook scored 20 points against Indiana after managing eight on 0-for-4 shooting versus Wisconsin. The senior guard was held to less than nine points in three of his last six games, but still leads Minnesota with 13.4 points per game.Westbrook scored nine and shot 3 of 9 at Purdue last month.