The rise of Purdue's juniors continues

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Purdue's steady climb to this promising place began 3 years ago, in the summer of 2006.

Coming off a 9-19 debut debacle, coach Matt Painter went out and locked up the northern half of the Hoosier State down to Indianapolis. That June, JaJuan Johnson of Indianapolis told Painter he wanted to be a Boilermaker. Eighteen days later, E'Twaun Moore of East Chicago, Ind., committed as well. And three days after that, Robbie Hummel of Valparaiso, Ind., joined the black-and-gold fold.

From that point on, Purdue fans began dreaming big. Seventy-four victories later, the dream is taking sharper focus.

For Boilermakers fans, the dream centers on an April drive south on Interstate 65 to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy for the school's first Final Four in 30 years. Truth be told, that's the same dream the three Purdue juniors share as well.

"Win a Big Ten championship," Moore said, "and hopefully go to the Final Four."

The Boilers took another significant step toward the first of those goals Wednesday night. They held off Evan Turner University, also known as Ohio State, 60-57 at Value City Arena.

Purdue's eighth straight victory elevated it to 10-3 in the Big Ten, tied in the loss column with defending champion Michigan State, and it enhanced the possibility of the Feb. 28 game against the Spartans in West Lafayette being for all the conference marbles. The victory also means Purdue has won consecutive road games at Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State. That's a grand Boiler slam.

It is yet another incline in the growth curve of the junior class that has been the foundation of New Purdue, the reinvention of the program post-Gene Keady. The three were part of a team that won 25 games as freshmen and made the NCAA second round. Last year they won 27, the Big Ten tournament title and advanced to the Sweet 16. Now 22-3 and ranked fourth in both polls, those accomplishments could be eclipsed.

And the reason why is simple: these three have kept together and kept improving.

"Every year we've done a good job of getting better," Moore said.

"We've grown a lot and learned from each other," Johnson said. "We've just been playing with each other for so long."

As freshmen, the trio combined to average 28.7 points and 13.1 rebounds. Last year, thanks mostly to the improvement of post player Johnson, those numbers rose to 39.7 points and 17.2 rebounds. This year, the three were combining for 48.3 points and 17.5 rebounds heading into this game.

Moore (17.3 ppg) and Hummel (16.1) have been the leading men on opposing scouting reports all season. That was the case here against Ohio State as well -- the Buckeyes were all over Hummel, holding him to four quiet points, and made Moore work hard for his 15.

That meant Johnson was going to get single-coverage in the post all night.

"Anytime JaJuan Johnson is one-on-one," Painter said, "we think we have a mismatch."

Shooting turnaround jumpers with the touch of a latter-day Robert Parish, Johnson torched the Buckeyes for 15 first-half points and 24 for the game. On many of them, the formerly shaky jump-shooter had a hand squarely in his mug.

"Those are some tough shots," said Ohio State's Jon Diebler. "That's a heck of a basketball player right there."

That's a heck of a basketball trio, as this game proved that opponents must pick their Purdue-flavored poison. And the juniors are fine with taking turns delivering the lethal dosage.

"Each one of those guys trusts the other one," Painter said. "They're really evolving as a group and really trusting each other down the stretch."

Um, about that down-the-stretch part. While the Boilers are playing great ball down the stretch of this season, they haven't performed so well down the stretch of individual games.

Last month they blew a second-half lead against Ohio State in West Lafayette. Last week they coughed up almost every bit of a 20-point lead at Michigan State before regrouping and finishing off the Spartans. And Wednesday night Purdue nearly squandered a 15-point lead here.

With Turner looking like the national Player of the Year favorite he is, the Buckeyes clawed back to within two at 48-46. But with Purdue hunkering down defensively and Thad Matta refusing to play his bench (four Bucks played 40 minutes), Ohio State hit the wall at that point.

The Buckeyes' next six possessions all ended in perimeter jump shots. All six missed. None were followed by offensive rebounds. A Turner 3 barely grazed the front rim.

Ohio State was gassed, even if the players wouldn't admit it afterward. Purdue pushed the lead back to eight.

Still, the game unexpectedly tightened up again in the final minute. On the last possession, the Buckeyes were a disorganized mess and still managed to get off a very makeable 3 by sharp-shooter Diebler from the top of the key that would've tied it.

It clanged.

"Got a good look," Diebler said. "I should have knocked it down."

Ohio State sagged, knocked back a step behind the Boilermakers and Michigan State in the Big Ten race. Purdue celebrated, finding itself a step closer to all it has envisioned since 2006.

"We talked to each other before we even got to Purdue," Johnson said. "We want to win championships together."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.