Purdue basketball: The ultimate preview for the 2021-22 season
Purdue enters the season ranked as the country’s 7th-best team.
Needless to say, that has people in West Lafayette excited to get started, as they think Jaden Ivey, Trevion Williams and Zach Edey have the goods to help Purdue to a deep NCAA Tournament run.
But that’s later. For now, let’s take an in-depth look at Purdue at the start of the season.
The Boilermakers have a good problem in that it’s debatable which of 3 players — Ivey, Williams or Edey — is their best. But the vote here goes to Ivey, because the guard showed enough in the last 10 games of his freshman year to show that his ceiling is extremely high. Ivey’s athleticism makes him darn near impossible for many to guard, because he’s quick enough to get to the hoop and strong enough to finish. If he can improve from the perimeter (only 26 percent on 3s in his first season in West Lafayette), watch out. He’s the kind of player who could not only carry the Boilermakers to a Big Ten title, but could make noise for himself and his team in the NCAA Tournament.
The big men, Williams and Edey, aren’t bad either. Williams has turned into a steady, consistent, near-double-double machine who can be a difficult matchup, especially if the opponent has a traditional 5 player. Edey might be one of the most improved players in the Big Ten, and he was pretty good as a freshman. His 7-foot-5 frame, combined with mature-beyond-his-years footwork and soft hands, make him a load inside.
Very few teams have a single center, let alone 2, who can dominate, but the Boilermakers have the luxury of being able to go with either Williams or Edey — or maybe on rare occasions the duo can play side-by-side — each of whom could go for 20 points and 10 rebounds in a game. Combined, the pair will likely average about 25 points and 15 rebounds while sharing 40 minutes per game, not a bad output from the 5 position.
How do opponents deal? They’ll likely have to double down on the inside, which could open 3-point opportunities for players like Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter Jr. and Brandon Newman, or for Ivey slashing to the basket. Point being, Purdue’s offense has plenty of options, inside and out, and will put a ton of stress on opponents’ defense.
As the season starts, Purdue has a couple of perceived, potentially glaring, weaknesses: It needs to shoot the ball much better than it did a year ago, and it must play better defense.
First, the shooting: Despite seeming to have good shooters on the roster, the Boilermakers, as a whole, didn’t pour the ball in from the perimeter last season. Instead, they shot only 30.7 percent from 3-point range during the Big Ten season, well lower than they would like. But there might be reasons (or excuses) for the dip: Stefanovic had COVID during the league season and struggled to recover his shot until late in the year. Hunter, who was recovering from a knee injury at the start of last season, saw his long-range percentage dip to only 27 percent after he had been a near-36 percent shooter the year before. It might be reasonable to suggest that neither of those things will happen again in 2021-22.
As for the defense, the Boilermakers could stand to take another step forward. Last season, Purdue surprised by having the league’s fourth-best defense, at least in terms of points allowed (66.7), but the Boilermakers were prone to lapses too, never more so than in its first-round NCAA defeat at the hands of hot-shooting North Texas.
Key to the season
The prevailing thought on Ivey is that he is destined for stardom, and that might be the case. But he also needs to play a controlled style of basketball that allows him to take advantage of his incredible athleticism without trying to do too much. In Purdue’s scrimmage vs. Providence, for instance, Ivey was great at times — at least judging from leaked information — but off at others. He had 9 turnovers. If Ivey is running the show, which he frequently will be, he needs to limit the mistakes.
Partly because of Ivey, expectations on Purdue are at an all-time high, with a fan base that is hungry for a winner, not only in the Big Ten but on the national stage. Will the Boilermakers handle the pressure?
Scouting the backcourt
Between Ivey, Hunter, Stefanovic and Newman, the Boilermakers feel they’ve got potential in the backcourt. Throw in Isaiah Thompson and perhaps Ethan Morton, and Purdue thinks it can be a deep group, as well.
Although each seems like he should be a good perimeter shooter, the Boilermakers as a collective were not a great shooting team a season ago. That’ll need to improve. But Ivey finished last year much better than he started, and Newman, who might take a big step forward in his second season, has the potential to be a dead-eye shooter.
Purdue won’t have a traditional point guard. Hunter is more than capable, but he’s a combo guard, and the same can be said for Ivey. Thompson might be the most traditional point, but he’ll play backup minutes.
Scouting the frontcourt
Purdue will start the season without projected starting 4 Mason Gillis, who is suspended for the first 6 games (secret scrimmage and exhibition included) after an off-season DUI arrest, so the Boilermakers will be without a hard-working 3-point threat in the frontcourt.
But it’s not as if Purdue doesn’t have a replacement. Freshman Caleb Furst is likely to get the call as the Game 1 starter, and if he plays well enough he might not give up the spot even when Gillis returns. The Boilermakers need Furst only to defend and rebound, but he’s a capable scorer as well, although he’ll see limited opportunities. Fellow rookie Trey Kaufman-Renn also should get minutes.
Purdue’s all set at the 5, with Williams and Edey, the only question being which one starts and which one finishes, the latter probably being the more important. Williams’ free throw shooting is iffy, so perhaps that gives Edey the late-minute edge.
A March prediction
There’s a long way to go between now and March, but if Purdue is what many people think it is, then the Boilermakers will have a chance at the Final Four.
They’re deep and experienced, and have top-end talent, with at least a couple players who are likely to play in the NBA, perhaps after being first-round draft picks. It’s the ingredients that frequently lead teams to deep NCAA Tournament runs. But Purdue has seemingly always come across a road block, whether it be a catastrophic injury or horrible tourney matchup, that has stymied its quest.
As for a bold prediction this season: Purdue advances to the Elite Eight, but as a slight underdog comes up — again — just short of advancing to its first Final Four since 1979.