One thing I have been very pleased to see in recent games is the abilty of the supporting cast to carry things and get the win without JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore carrying much of the load. That is an important step in the evolution of our team. Before Christmas this team did a little too much, "Stand around and watch JJ and E'Twaun do their thing." While both guys are great talents and will win a lot of games in that type of offense, to truly go to the next level you have to develop something else.
A prime example of how we used to be is the Virginia Tech game. JJ and Smooge combined for 43 of our 58 points. Again, that will win you a lot of games, especially if our defense is on, but great teams will find a way to counter it.
The last two games have been "Oh, by the way games." We have had several possessions where guys like Ryne Smith, Kelsey Barlow, Lewis Jackson, and others have produced much of the scoring. Then we'll have moment of, "Oh, by the way," where JJ or Smooge will come through with a big basket. This is important for several reasons. First, JJ and E'Twaun won't be here next year, so these guys have to learn to carry the offense so we can continue playing well next season. Second, it makes them weapons that other teams must respect instead of doubling JJ or E'Twaun. Penn State took away E'Twaun, but had nothing for Ryne Smith. Iowa did a decent job on E'Twaun, but Smith and Barlow did a lot.
People have said all along that we have to find a way to replace Robbie Hummel. I think we have done it in the best way possible: with not one, but three guys. Think about it. Robbie was just one man. He is excellent, but it was possible to contain him. Now we have Ryne Smith taking his 3-point shooting, Barlow rebounding and playing inside as strongly as him, and D.J. Byrd doing the Little Things that Robbie did, with the ability to score as well. Instead of taking one guy with all of these things out of the equation, we now have three guys contributing in this way. Oh, and we still had E'Twaun and JJ.
The main stream media (especially Tim Doyle, who was awful today) can continue to beat us with the Robbie card, but We're playing better now than we did a lot of last year with him. I would still take him if his knee was magically healed tomorrow and he was ready to go, but only because he would make a smoothly running machine even better. One ready had a great "pick your poison" When LewJack drives the lane what do you do. Do you collapse and make him kick out to a white hot Ryne Smith for an open three? Do you let him drive? Or do you collapse and let him dish to JJ for a thunderdunk?
We as Purdue fans know a secret that will soon start to get out. This is an incredibly fun TEAM to watch because everyone is on the same page and functioning as one unit. Any player we throw on the floor is a danger to score, rebound, or deliver a nice pass. Even Travis Carroll, who played the fewest minutes of the main eight rotation today, showed a lot of hustled for two points and six boards. He looks better every time he is on the floor, and today he gained 16 valuable minutes that will be huge later. We worry about playing bigger lineups, but we're getting him key stretches where he is meshing with JJ on the floor at the same time. We still have Patrick Bade and Sandi Marcius available too. Just like John Hart in the Illinois game last year, coach painter is not afraid to throw a guy in that hasn't seen much time recently. If this pair continues to work in practice it will pay off in playing time.
Finally, you have our defense, which I compare to a boa constrictor. One of the few good comments I heard from the announcing crew today was that Iowa's best time to shoot was when they could see the basket, because we didn't allow them to see it much. This is true. We squeeze the life out of the perimeter game and both LewJack and Barlow are developing into all-Big Ten Defensive Team caliber players. Smith is also hustling big time on the defensive end. It is almost like the spirit of Kramer has infected this team with the way it plays defense. We're leaving a trail of leading scorers erased from games in our wake. John Shurna, Darius Morris, Talor Battle, and now Eric May have been virtually erased as an offensive force for the opposition.
Granted, so far we have not played the top teams in the conference. By taking away the main option of these four teams it is a lot easier to win because they don't have as consistent second and third options as other teams do. Still, it is an easy formula for victory when you have an offense that is humming and a defense that strangles the life out of teams. If we're so bad, why did we win with ease in Ann Arbor where #3 Kansas survived in overtime? What about Michigan State losing at the same place where we cruised to an easy 15 point win?
The only solution to anyone talking about this team in a negative light is to keep winning. People have tried to sell us, tell us it was hopeless without Robbie, say we aren't pretty on offense and that our style won't last against bigger teams. One thing you'll notice is that both Penn State and Iowa tried multiple zones plus man-to-man to try and slow us down. Not only did it not work, it was like a pair of intense 40 minute practice sessions so now the guys have experience against nearly any type of defense they will face.
Things start to get tougher this week, first with a trip to Minnesota and the Floor of Doom. We must prepare ourselves for every conceivable replay of Robbie's injury. We're also going to be facing a hungry Golden Gopher team that is off to a rough start in conference play. They will be looking for a big win to turn their season around, because a loss puts them at 1-4 in league play. After a tough trip to West Virginia and a likely breather at home against Penn State, the true measure of the conference season will begin.
This team is ready for it though. We have honed our craft against a schedule tougher than what we had last year, and if not for one terrible half of basketball against Richmond we would be undefeated right now. Not only that, but 14 of our 15 victories have been by a comfortable double-digit margin. Not even Ohio State can say that.
It has been an incredible ride so far, but the best is yet to come.