3/7/20 Rutgers, Nojel Eastern, Ron Harper Jr.

Junior guard Nojel Eastern fights for possession of the ball against Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. (24) among others on March 7 in Mackey Arena.

The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament kicks off this week, and the Boilermakers are looking to make a huge push towards a potential March Madness appearance.

Right off the bat, the No. 10 Boilermakers (16-15) will be faced with a challenge taking on Kaleb Wesson and No. 7 Ohio State (21-10). Head coach Matt Painter spoke about his team’s focus going into Thursday night’s game.

“You really just keep your focus on the first team you’re playing,” Painter said. “You can’t make a run unless you win your first game. We are just trying to focus on us playing better than we did the other day.”

Painter has an 11-13 record in Big Ten Tournament play throughout his coaching career at Purdue. This is the lowest Purdue has ever been seeded since the 2006 season, when they were an 11th seed, the last in the Big Ten.

“We haven’t been able to maintain that level of consistency this year,” Painter said. “You win three in a row, you lose four in a row, you win two in a row, you’re in position to win a game and you don’t.”

Purdue has come very close to winning multiple conference games throughout the year, Saturday’s loss to Rutgers being the latest example. In order to make a run, the Boilermakers are going to have to play consistent basketball, controlling the pressure of the athleticism of their opponents.

Veteran leaders such as senior forward Evan Boudreaux, junior center Matt Haarms and junior guard Nojel Eastern are also going to have to step up in the locker room and on the court. Eastern spoke about what the Boilermakers need to do this week.

“We have to go down there and just leave it all out on the court,” Eastern said. “We need to play every single game like it’s our last game and just allow that momentum to take us as far as we can.”

Eastern was named to the All Big Ten Defensive team for the second straight year, and the Boilermakers will have to put all the pressure they can on the Buckeye offense. With scorers like Kaleb and Andre Wesson, the Boilermaker defense will already be challenged in this tournament.

“I’m looking forward to guarding whoever,” Eastern said. “If I need to guard Kaleb Wesson, I’m going to guard Kaleb Wesson. Whoever I need to guard to go out there and guard to win the game, I’m going to do that.”

Defense and presence in the paint is key against almost every team in the Big Ten, the conference that has the most AP ranked teams in the NCAA this year by far.

Players like Eastern will have to lock down beyond the arc and around the free-throw line. It will be up to the big men like sophomore forward Trevion Williams to secure rebounds on both sides of the ball and score necessary field goals in the paint.

“We need him (Williams) to be aggressive, we need him to score,” Painter said regarding Purdue’s offensive plan. “Even if you don’t, say, make both free throws you’re still accumulating fouls, you’re still getting into the bonus which are still a lot of positives to come.”

Purdue lost its only game against the Buckeyes this year 68-52. At halftime in that game, the Boilermakers had only totaled 20 points. To reach a different outcome in this one, Purdue will have to be on its game early.

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