Dienhart: Big night ahead for Indiana, Purdue

The finger is poised above the panic button at Indiana and Purdue, in-state brothers bound by basketball love that has grown bad in 2013-14. What’s the postseason future of these teams?

Tonight, each plays a road game that will set the tone for the stretch run of the season and go a long way toward determining their postseason future.

[ MORE: State of Big Ten Hoops Address ]

Indiana and Purdue are each 13-7 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten as they approach this “now or never” moment on Wednesday night with their seasons perhaps teetering on the brink. Well, IU’s may be teetering. Purdue’s may already be over the edge. But, play along, OK?

Indiana plays at Nebraska, bringing a resume that lacks much substance outside of a home win vs. Wisconsin. And even that is losing luster. The Hoosiers are coming off a home win vs. moribund Illinois that preceded losses to Northwestern and at Michigan State. This is a Hoosiers club that has had issues with turnovers. And shooting also has been off. The key player is sophomore point man Yogi Ferrell, who must play big.

Winning in Lincoln will be difficult. This is a Cornhuskers club that’s on the rise under Tim Miles. The Huskers are 9-1 in Pinnacle Bank Arena. And Nebraska has won two of its last three overall, knocking off Ohio State and Minnesota in Lincoln. The last time IU came to Nebraska, it got dumped in 2012.

“They’re like everyone else in the Big Ten,” IU coach Tom Crean said of Nebraska. “They’re really, really good and there is a little something special when you’re at home.

“I think what has happened there is the teams that have been there shot it quick, taken bad shots, taken corner shots, things of that nature, and Nebraska capitalizes on that.”

Indiana entered the week with an RPI of 67. If it wants to return to the NCAA tourney, a win tonight vs. the Huskers could serve as a launching pad with games to follow vs. Michigan and at Minnesota. A loss could send the Hoosiers into an extended funk.

And know this: talent isn’t an issue in Bloomington. Noah Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell are five-star recruits. Hanner Perea, Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson are four-stars. Injuries also aren’t an issue.

So, we watch and wait.

As they lace ‘em up at Michigan tonight, the Boilermakers face an even more dire sense of urgency than the Hoosiers. Purdue’s RPI is a woeful 108, trailing such college basketball luminaries as Middle Tennessee State, Cleveland State, Canisius, Pacific and Saint Bonaventure. I think you get the idea.

The only way the Boilers figure to make the Big Dance for the first time since 2012 will be to win out—or win the Big Ten tourney. So, trying to make the NIT looks to be a more attainable and realistic goal after the Boilers played in the CBI last year. But even that modest quest will require some heavy lifting for a Purdue team that lacks the top-end talent that Indiana and tonight’s foe Michigan possess.

Purdue’s best win, according to the latest RPI, has been vs. No. 62 Eastern Michigan. This Boilers team lost to a Washington State team that is No. 173 in the RPI. Things have regressed at an alarming rate the last two seasons in West Lafayette, as Matt Painter didn’t build off the momentum of the Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore era or the spark of overhauled facilities.

Can Purdue win in the Crisler Center vs. the first-place and No. 10-ranked Wolverines, who have beaten top-10 teams each of the last three times out? Sure. If this crazy season has shown us one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected. We saw that last night when Penn State won at Ohio State and Northwestern prevailed at Wisconsin. Will Michigan suffer a letdown after all of those marquee wins?

“That’s something that we’ve been learning from continuously as a program,” Michigan big man Jordan Morgan said. “These last few years we’ve had that back and forth being the hunter vs. the hunted. We’ve gone through all these spells up and down where people count us out or people hopping on the bandwagon. Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at just keeping it even keel, no matter what people are saying.

“That helps us with our approach and validates our approach just going day by day.”

For Purdue and Indiana, it’s time to get busy winning … or get busy dealing with a disappointing postseason reality.

Tonight is big.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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