Even after Robbie Hummel went down I predicted that we would enter Big Ten play with an undefeated record. A very poor night shooting against Richmond in the Chicago Invitational Challenge prevented that from coming true, but other than an overtime game at Virginia Tech, Purdue had a very business-like non-conference season. Sure, there is still the trip to Morgantown against West Virginia in the middle of the conference season, but we have made it through the first major part of the season as expected. In fact, we were better than expected if you believe some of the mainstream writers.
Even with the loss to Richmond (who is a good team) I think you have to consider the non-conference season a success. We survived our toughest challenge at Virginia Tech. We recovered from essentially a bad half that dug a hole against the Spiders, and int he rest of the games were left little doubt as to who was the better team. Some of these teams, like Oakland and Valparaiso, could end the year in the NCAA Tournament by winning their conferences, so they weren't all patsies. Even then, 10 of our 11 victories were by 13 points or more. Very few teams, regardless of schedule, can boast that.
Most importantly, we showed improvement, culminating in tonight. For the first time E'Twaun took more of a complimentary role, scoring only 11 points and dishing out six assists. We didn't just have a third scorer, but we had a fourth and a fifth as well. Everyone got involved as even one of the Hanson Brothers had a basket. I am confident that we would win a rematch with Richmond, and that we're at the place we need to be going into Big Ten play.
Positives from the IPFW game:
D.J. Byrd - I have taken some criticism for my desire of having a Hummel-lite. I originally (and disastrously) attributed this trait to Patrick Bade. I then transferred it to Byrd, who showed tonight he can be that typ of player. I say that because he is the one player we have that combines Hummel's 3-point ability with the tenacity to get some tough boards and play hard defense. From seeing him in high school I know Byrd can be a passer and take on those Little Things characteristics as well. I don't think he can totally replicate Robbie's work because of his smaller stature, but he is a gritty player that, as an upside, can probably give us at least 70% of that.
In addition to 15 points he had three boards and three assists. I think he can eventually be the type that can get to the line too. As long as Byrd can shoot and at least be an offensive threat it will loosen things up not only for Smooge and JJ, but for everyone else as well.
Lewis Jackson - So are there people that still think he is useless? Tonight he shot the jumper everyone has been begging for and he even hit one from long range. Oh, and he had eight assists. when you extrapolate that, he created at least 24 points based on his scoring and his assist total.
Terone Johnson - TJ needed this game badly. I still think we're going to see him grow the most as the season goes on. If he does, we're going to get a whole lot better. He also rebounded and had a couple of assists, showing that he can be more than a scorer.
I have said it before. We're going to get efforts like tonight out of JJ and E'Twaun in every game. If we get repeat efforts like TJ, Byrd, and LewJack gave us tonight it only opens things up even more for our offense. When you combine that with the defense we have been playing (and can continue to play) a lot of good things are going to happen. Are things really that bad if we're bitching about only winning by 15 or so?
Sandi Marcius - It was only one basket and he is still very raw, but it was nice to see the Sandman get involved offensively. We even looked to him at points. LewJack is not afraid to pass to him, and he demonstrated a soft touch at the rim when LewJack found him. Little contributions like this go a long way.
Assists - Again, it is little things like 26 assists on 31 made field goals. That tells me we're truly playing unselfish team basketball on offense. I firmly believe this is what got Byrd and LewJack involved from a scoring standpoint. Guys other than JJ and E'Twaun weren't afraid to shoot tonight, and the flow of the offense put them in positions to have the necessary confidence.
Bubba Day and Dru Anthrop - I've gotta give some love to the Bastard Sons of Bobby Buckets, who both cracked the scoring column for possibly the last time this season. I must say that Day has a nice stroke, and I would not be disappointed to see him out there for a minute or two per night just to see if we can get him an open look. it is all about making teams worry about other players.
Negatives from the IPFW game:
Kelsey Barlow - The mercurial GDB was trending down tonight. He finished with four of our 11 turnovers and Mrs. T-mill had four times tonight where she laughed as I yelled, "Dammit Barlow!" at the TV. As long as he can start trending more like the Indiana State game we're fine with him. I can live with his downsides as long as he rebounds like he did at Conseco.
E'Twaun Moore - Yes, I am putting The Assassin here only because he has started very slowly in the last two games. More likely, he is pacing himself for the Big Ten season and learning when to pick his spots. Who really gives a crap if he scores only 11 in a 25 point blowout? If it means he drops 25 per game against the Big Ten I am all for it. I mean, if the idiot Gary Parrish thinks he is worthy of All-America consideration (and amazingly not JJ) he has to be good.
Losing the 3-point Specialist - There was a scary stretch late in the first half when we lost Oleg Kovalov for four open threes. I believe we call this the Keaton Nankivil, who loves shooting at Mackey Arena. We can't lose the European sharpshooter, ever.
It's time to rest for a week, enjoy Christmas, then get tot he business of defending the Big Ten title. As long as we build on what we have learned and play as we did tonight, I don't see any reason we can't start 4-0 in conference play to build a nice early lead. we absolutely should beat Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State. We catch a break by playing the Wolverines in an odd midweek day game with no students on campus. Getting Northwestern at home on New Year's Eve will be a solid test as well.
Practice time is over. It is time to step up because these next two games won't win the Big Ten again, but they can certainly lose it very early on.