When Purdue meets No. 15 Ohio State at 9 p.m. tonight in Mackey Arena, one of college basketball's most difficult matchups awaits.
The Boilermakers don't have to worry about the interior dominance of Jared Sullinger anymore when facing the Buckeyes, but Deshaun Thomas presents an entirely different set of problems.
The Ohio State power forward is using his unique blend of strength and perimeter ability to average better than 20 points per game this season.
"A lot of different people will be on him," Purdue coach Matt Painter said of the preseason All-American and Fort Wayne native. "You don't stop a guy like that. You just try to make it tough on him and slow him down. Don't let him catch the ball in his sweet spots, because when he gets in a rhythm he makes them when people are on him, so you have to try to keep him out of a rhythm, but that's easier said than done."
It'll be a task assigned to several different Boilermakers, likely starting with forward Jacob Lawson.
"I think I can stick with him and play good defense on him," Lawson said, "and see what I can do against a star in his league."
"Coach said a lot of different people will be guarding him, but I think I can match up with him, personally."
D.J. Byrd guarded Thomas in spurts against Ohio State last season, when the Buckeye offense ran through Sullinger, now a Boston Celtic.
"He's got three-point range, mid-range, he has that great pull-up and he's a great offensive rebounder," Byrd said. "Keeping him off the glass, keeping him in check with no catch-and-shoot threes ... we have to be able to contain him."
Thomas is Ohio State's next star, following the likes of Sullinger, Evan Turner, Greg Oden and Mike Conley, etc.
But as was the case with all of those NBA players, Thomas is surrounded by weapons.
Aaron Craft is one of the better point guards in college basketball, equipped with a wealth of experience. The Big Ten's reigning defensive player-of-the-year has handed out 50 more assists than he's committed turnovers in 440 minutes this season.
Fellow guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. is a 44-percent three-point shooter averaging better than 11 points per game.
"We're going have to guard every position," Purdue guard Terone Johnson said. "We're going to have to knuckle up and guard and them."
Both teams are looking to avoid a losing streak.
Ohio State got handled at Illinois Saturday immediately after Michigan State shook Purdue in the second half en route to a one-sided win.
"They're coming off a loss and we're coming off a loss," Byrd said. "It should be a battle."
(And we're guessing.)
F: D.J. Byrd
F: Jacob Lawson
C: A.J. Hammons
G: Aaron Craft (6-2, 190, Jr.)
G: [db]Lenzelle Smith Jr.[/db] (6-4, 205, Jr.)
G: Amir Williams (6-11 250, So.)
F: Deshaun Thomas (6-7, 225, Jr.)
C: Sam Thompson (6-7, 190, So.)
The Buckeyes (11-3) are 0-2 on the road this season, with losses at Duke (73-68) and Illinois (74-55), both ranked teams. Its loss to Kansas, another ranked team, occurred in Columbus ... Led by Thomas, who averages just under seven rebounds per game, Ohio State is out-rebounding opponents 39-32.2, and is averaging more than 12 offensive rebounds per game. ... Thomas is the Big Ten's leading scorer thus far, averaging 20.2 points. ... Illinois out-rebounded Ohio State 40-30, the second time this season the Buckeyes were beaten on the boards; the other team to do it was Kansas.
Game time: 9 p.m.
Radio: Purdue Sports Network (95.7 FM locally)
Internet: GoldandBlack.com subscribers can follow along live with our in-game blog, "Game Day Live."
Things to think about
1. Can Purdue stand up to Thomas? The Buckeye junior might be the most physical player on the floor, even when he's playing on the wing. There aren't many like him out there.
He can hang 30 in a heartbeat if Purdue can't make things as difficult on him as possible. As Painter said, easier said than done.
But this is the first time Purdue has faced Thomas with him as the focal point of its game plan. Before, that was Sullinger.
2. Can Hammons stay on the floor? The freshman center hasn't encountered foul trouble consistently this season, but the Michigan State game underscored the need for him not to.
He is too important to Purdue for the Boilermakers not to get maximum minutes from.
Now that Big Ten play has started and things get a little more physical, it's something to watch for.
3. Turnovers. Purdue's done a profoundly better job taking care of the basketball lately and it's been maybe the primary reason the Boilermakers have played better.
But its guards with have their hands full with Craft, a Chris Kramer-ish player the likes of which [db]Ronnie Johnson[/db] has almost certainly never faced.
Ohio State probably won't turn the ball over much, if their results so far are any indication.
4. Will any Boilermaker absolutely go off against the Buckeyes this year?
It's pure coincidence, but it seems like every year a Purdue player - from JaJuan Johnson to E'Twaun Moore to Robbie Hummel to Byrd - has blown up against Ohio State.
5. How will the crowd be for Purdue's first Big Ten game with its students back on campus.
If there's ever a season in which Purdue needs its traditional homecourt advantage, this is it.
Fans at the game tonight get a free T-shirt.
GoldandBlack.com Prediction: Purdue has shown real signs of progress the past four games, the misleading final score at Michigan State aside. Ohio State is a really difficult matchup - Thomas, in particular, will make things really hard on the Boilermakers - but not quite as difficult with Sullinger gone. Purdue just had no answer for him. The Buckeyes have struggled this season on the road.
Purdue 70, Ohio State 68
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