Boilermakers are looking at 20-win possibility

This is, at many institutions of higher learning, a time for examination, a month in which students find out just how much they truly have learned so far this year. Invariably, those no-fun professors toss in something of a trick question, one where the obvious isn't necessarily the answer.

In honor of that, here's today's college basketball trick question: Which Big Ten school currently tops the conference in the RPI?

Ohio State is the Big Ten school with the most hype. Wisconsin has, arguably, the conference's best win to date with last weekend's victory at Marquette. And Michigan State has an early-season victory over a ranked opponent [then No. 18-rated Texas on Nov. 16].

All of those answers, however, would be wrong.

The Big Ten school with the highest RPI is also the team that has been the league's most intriguing squad in the first month of the season: Purdue.

Even Boilermakers coach Matt Painter didn't truly know what to expect out of this team when practice began two months ago. There were simply too many pieces to try to fit together. Chris Lutz and Marcus Green were veterans of last year's disaster of a season. David Teague and Carl Landry were coming back from injury. Tarrance Crump was a junior-college transfer. Gordon Watt was a transfer from Boston College. And Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant were freshmen who likely would contribute immediately.

"It was a total blend," Painter said. "We have newcomers, we have a MASH unit and then we have two returners."

The early results have been promising. The Boilermakers have won eight of their nine games against a solid schedule. After a first-round loss to Georgia Tech at the Maui Invitational, Purdue rebounded to defeat Oklahoma and DePaul. The Boilermakers followed that with victories over Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, preseason Horizon League favorite Loyola (Chicago) and then-unbeaten Missouri.

As a result, Purdue is suddenly in the top 20 in the RPI.

Certainly critics can blow off Purdue's accomplishments by pointing out that Oklahoma is the only one of Purdue's four major-conference victims that played in last season's NCAA tournament. The comeback is simple: Purdue had nine wins all of last season.

Everybody should have a little better of an idea of where the Boilermakers stand after Saturday's game against Butler, itself one of the biggest stories of the early season. Can Purdue do what fellow in-state high-majors Indiana and Notre Dame weren't able to do earlier this season and defeat the Bulldogs?

"They're very difficult to match up with," Painter said of the NIT Season Tip-Off champs. "They're very efficient on the offensive end. They average less than 10 turnovers per game. We're going to have our hands full."

It's not a coincidence that the transformation of the Boilermakers has come at the same time that Landry has overhauled his game.

Two years ago, Landry arrived in West Lafayette from junior college and quickly established a reputation as a scorer -- his 18.2 points per game was good for second in the conference. But he quickly gained the reputation of being a little too much of a one-way player. Let's put it this way: If Landry played in the National Hockey League, he wouldn't have really excelled in the plus/minus category.

"Rick Majerus made a very good comment to me in the airport that [Landry] is changing his identity," Painter said. "He's doing a better job on the defensive end, he's doing a better job on the glass, he's doing a better job taking charges, being in a stance and being alert on the defensive end. He's just leading by example, he's been fabulous and, hopefully, he can continue to be our rock down low."

Landry laughs when told there's a rumor going around that he's actually taking charges now.

"I think I lead the team in charges," Landry said. "I don't like doing it, but I know I have to."

Sitting out most of last season and taking a medical redshirt, Landry realized that his game wasn't as complete as it needed to be.

"My first year here, I had individual goals and that caused us to lose a little bit," Landry said of the 7-21 campaign. "I was looking out for myself too much. This year, I'm just going to be a player. I'm diving for loose balls, I'm getting deflections.

"I want to give my team extra opportunities, extra possessions. Sometimes games come down to one possession."

While Landry has expanded his game, his offensive output hasn't declined.

"Carl's a beast," Teague said. "He's really playing a lot better than as a junior.

"It's kind of like having Shaq. You throw it into him and it's almost a guaranteed basket."

For the season, Landry is averaging 20.0 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting better than 64 percent from the floor. Over the past six games -- which includes the four major conference victories and wins over Delaware State and Loyola -- Landry has recorded a pair of double-doubles while averaging 22.5 points and nine rebounds per game.

In the process, he became the first player ever -- yes, that says ever -- to be named Big Ten player of the week for three consecutive weeks.

Landry's biggest game of the season came when he dropped 30 on Oklahoma. In many ways, that game might have been the most important so far this season for Purdue. After losing to Georgia Tech, it would have been very easy for the Boilermakers to cave and leave Maui without a victory. This team is filled with new parts and the returning players have known little but losing at Purdue. This wasn't exactly a group that was overflowing with confidence or one that had an abundance of positive experiences to draw from.

"It was a gut check really for us," Painter said. "The Oklahoma game, it was 8:30 in the morning, we had a quick turnaround. It was a battle, but we made just a couple more defensive plays down the stretch and that was the difference."

While the what-if game is dangerous to play, it's difficult to know what would have happened to the Boilermakers had they lost that game. Winning often times begets winning while losing leads to more losing. In this case, Purdue returned home with some newfound confidence and it has grown with every game since.

Last weekend, Purdue rolled a much-improved Missouri team and handed the Tigers a 17-point loss.

"We're just trying to use this little success we've had and continue that snowball into some positive feelings for this team," Painter said. "It has been a rough couple of years. We haven't made any excuses, but now, hopefully, we're going in the right direction."

While a victory this weekend certainly would raise Purdue's profile and probably would move the Boilermakers into the Top 25 for the first time under Painter, it is already in a pretty good position to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

Even if Purdue splits its games with Butler and Indiana State, the Boilermakers should enter conference play with 12 victories. Considering that Purdue has almost as soft a Big Ten schedule as possible -- the Boilermakers play Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State only once each -- getting to 20 victories seems feasible, if not probable.

That's important because 20 is a magic number in the Big Ten. Since 1994, no tournament-eligible team with 20 wins has been left out of the NCAAs. Nineteen hasn't guaranteed admission, but 20 has been bulletproof.

There's certainly a lot of basketball to be played between now and early March, but Purdue has the appearance of a team that could emerge out of the Big Ten's middle -- some might say mediocre middle -- and be a significant surprise.

By the end of Saturday, we might have a better idea if that will happen.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.