Purdue basketball: How much should we believe in the No. 3 Boilermakers?
After a shaky start to the Big Ten season, in which it lost 2 of its first 3, Purdue has established itself as the team to beat in the league.
The Boilermakers are in a 3-way tie with Illinois and Wisconsin atop the standings at 10-3 following their 84-68 win over the Fighting Illini in raucous Mackey Arena late on Tuesday night. It was Purdue’s 6th straight win. But while Purdue feels good about its chance for a 25th Big Ten title, the race is still far from over. The Boilermakers still have road games remaining at Michigan (Thursday night), then at Michigan State and Wisconsin in the final week-and-a-half of the regular season. Home rematches with Rutgers and Indiana, which handed the Boilermakers’ 2 of their losses — the Badgers were the other — loom, as well. Of course, should Purdue sweep the final 7 games, it knows it’ll earn a share of the title with the Illini, which it has swept this season.
But Matt Painter’s team has bigger goals in mind, too. The Boilermakers are seeking a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would likely give them an easier path to the Final Four. If they can reach New Orleans, it’ll be the Boilermakers’ first trip to the semifinals since 1980, the year before Gene Keady became the head coach.
Purdue has the pieces: A superstar guard in Jaden Ivey, who is likely to be a lottery pick (and perhaps a top-3 selection) in this summer’s NBA Draft, a two-headed monster in the middle in Zach Edey and Trevion Williams and high-end role players such as senior guards Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. and sophomore forward Mason Gillis.
The Boilermakers are one of the country’s most offensively efficient teams.
KenPom.com ranks Purdue No. 1 in adjusted offense, significantly higher even than the No. 2 team Gonzaga. A reason is the diversity of the Boilermakers’ offensive weapons, from centers Edey and Williams who can dominate the paint to great 3-point shooters in Stefanovic (41%) and Gillis (51%) and a guard, in Ivey, who can create for himself and his teammates, and is darn near impossible for opponents to slow down.
It means that from the opening tip, Purdue is putting mass pressure on the opponent’s defense. What should they try to take away? Double in the post and a shooter is left open. Leave them singled-up and they’re likely to score inside. Collapse on a driving Ivey and he’ll either score anyway, go to the foul line or get the ball to the open teammate.
Purdue has found a formula that works. In its past 10 games, it has bounced leads out to double figures nine times. In the only loss during the stretch, Purdue led Indiana by 8 before the Hoosiers rallied to a 3-point win. Yes, the Boilermakers have squandered big leads at times, like when Ohio State rallied from 20 down before Ivey was forced to win the game on a near walk-off triple.
And lately, the Boilermakers seem to be improving, too. The win over the Illini on Tuesday was probably the most well-rounded of the Big Ten season. Ivey has taken his game to another level, understanding when he needs to try to take over a game and going to the basket with purpose. And Hunter, who had gotten lost in a new role at the start of the season, has settled back in as Purdue’s starting point guard, giving Purdue a steady hand, a leader and another big-shot maker.
What hasn’t worked?
Purdue is improving defensively, but it’s far from a finished product.
And it might never get there.
Will that — the 104th team in adjusted defense, per Kenpom.com — be good enough to get to a Final Four? That might be the biggest question facing the Boilermakers. At times lately, Purdue has shown that it has the capability of being an above-average defensive unit, like in the second half Tuesday vs. Illinois, when the Illini shot less than 36-percent from the field and made only 1-of-10 3-pointers.
But it’s those moments that make the others more frustrating. Purdue has a tendency to get lost in its defensive rotations, being slow to close out on 3-point shooters or unable to quickly get through screens. It was a big issue late vs. Indiana, when Rob Phinisee got free for his game-winning 3-pointer vs. the Boilermakers.
The month ahead
Purdue needs to guard against a letdown.
The Boilermakers picked up 2 big victories this week, first getting by Michigan at home Saturday before knocking off Illinois, in what was a battle to get Purdue into a first-place tie, on Tuesday night. Purdue is traveling Wednesday to Ann Arbor, where it’ll have a second game in 2nd game in 6 days vs. the Wolverines, then the Boilermakers host Maryland on Saturday.
Considering Purdue started 1-2 in the Big Ten, it might be human nature to take a breath now that the Boilermakers have climbed back to the top of the standings. But they don’t have such a luxury.
Provided Purdue makes it through the week, the Big Ten title will likely be decided in the final 3 games. Then, Purdue has back-to-back road games at Michigan State (Feb. 26) and Wisconsin (March 1), then the home season-finale vs. Indiana (March 5).
Purdue is angling toward a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
In his Tuesday morning bracket update, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Boilermakers as a No. 1 seed in the East (Philadelphia) Region. But in only 24 hours, it’s likely that much has changed. Auburn’s Tuesday night loss might help to open the way for the Boilermakers as the 1 in the Midwest Region, with the regional finals being held in Chicago, a coveted location only a few hours north of West Lafayette.
It’s a good position for the 21-3 Boilermakers to be in, where they are as concerned with location as seeding. But matchups will matter in the NCAAs as well, and bad ones have gotten the best of the Boilermakers at times during the last decade.