Purdue's final game before the conference season is hardly an easy tune-up game.
Purdue takes the basketball court one more time before stepping into conference play and that comes Saturday afternoon when the Boilers host the William & Mary Tribe. In advance of tomorrow's preview I have a very special Q&A. Kris Sears is the current Sports information Director for the Tribe and he is also a former Kokomo HS classmate of mine. He was happy to answer a few questions about our final opponent before conference play.
T-Mill: You guys have already surpassed the win total of last season. What is different about this team?
Kris: The biggest difference is team chemistry. After having a number injuries derail last season really before it started, the Tribe has been injury-free for most part this season. With nearly everyone healthy during the preseason and fall, it allowed the team to develop consistency and chemistry on the court. It also helps that W&M's top players have played at a high-level through the opening 10 games of the season.
Sophomore guard Marcus Thornton, who averages 18 points per game, was the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Maryland as a senior in high school and is really starting to come into his own in the collegiate game. As a freshman last season, Thornton averaged 25 points per game in two contests with VCU and as a preseason All-CAA selection is one of the top guards in the league.
Junior guard Brandon Britt, who is averaging 15 points per game, had a sophomore slump, but has come out of the gate strong in 2012, including a career-high 26 points in the win over Howard. Junior forward Tim Rusthoven, who is from the Chicago area, is one of the top bigmen in the Colonial Athletic Association, averaging 14.1 points and seven rebounds per game. Those three are scoring close to 70 percent from the Tribe's points in 2012, but other players like junior Kyle Gaillard and senior Matt Rum have started to pick up as secondary scoring options.
Gaillard missed all of last season with in an injury and is starting to round into the form, averaging 12.2 points per game and shooting 73.3 percent from the field over the last five games.
In the past, W&M has relied heavily on 3-point shooting, but that hasn't been the case in 2012-13. The Tribe is shooting the basketball at an extremely high level and getting to the free throw line at a high rate. W&M ranks 19th nationally in field goal percentage shooting 48.6 percent from the floor. The Tribe has shot better than 45 percent from the floor in all but one game this season.
According to KenPom.com, W&M ranks seventh nationally in free throw rate at 50 percent. In its seven victories, the Tribe is averaging 18.3 made free throws in 25.6 free throw attempts compared to 11.3 free throws made in 18.7 attempts per game in its three losses.
T-Mill: What do you see as William & Mary's NCAA chances with VCU gone from the CAA?
This season was set to be a very interesting season in the CAA with VCU leaving, but with the non-conference results it has turned into a very open league. While there are currently 11 playing members in the CAA, only seven will take part in the league tournament in March. Both Old Dominion and Georgia State are playing in the CAA during the regular season, but due to their announced moves to Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference (both for football reasons), respectively, they are ineligible for CAA Tournament due to the conference bylaws. Both UNCW and Towson are also ineligible for the league tournament because of NCAA APR penalties.
As of now, only two CAA teams have records above .500 in George Mason (7-4) and William and Mary (7-3). The non-conference has not been a good one for most of the CAA, including preseason league favorites Drexel and Delaware. The Tribe currently sits atop the CAA standing, having downed Old Dominion, 71-62, in the only league game to this point. Old Dominion, which has struggled to this point in the season, is coming off their best win of the year over 9-3 Virginia last week.
With the main part of the conference slate less than a week from beginning, George Mason seems to be the class of the league, and W&M is in that next group of teams that are certainly capable of making a run at the conference championship. The Tribe enters a stretch, starting with Purdue, that will tell how far this team has come and what it is capable of doing. W&M plays five of its next six games on the road. After the Purdue, W&M travels to Vanderbilt to face the Commodores on Jan. 2, before heading home to face George Mason. The stretch continues for W&M with three straight CAA road games through mid-January.
While historically, W&M has not won a lot, recent history is that two of the last five years, the Tribe has played in the CAA Championship game.
Who knows, maybe this is the year, W&M takes its name off the list of five original Division I members to have never made the NCAA Tournament, along with Army, St. Francis (N.Y.), The Citadel and the Big Ten's own Northwestern.
T-Mill: Is this a confident team facing a Purdue team that has struggled greatly to score?
Kris: The Tribe program is brimming with confidence following its 7-3 start that could easily be 9-1. In its most high-profile games to this point, the Tribe had opportunities at both Wake Forest and Richmond, before letting wins slip away.
The College led by 13 points in the first half at Wake Forest and was up late in the contest in Winston-Salem as well, before falling 63-57. W&M also had Richmond on the ropes at the end of regulation and in the first overtime, but couldn't hold on in falling to the Spiders, 85-78, in double OT. Having already surpassed last season's win total, including three on the road, there is a sense that this team still has something to prove.
Anytime a Mid-Major program gets the opportunity to go against Power-Six conference foe like Purdue, it is a chance to potentially open some eyes. The upcoming stretch for W&M is one in which it has a chance to really prove itself. While Purdue has struggled to score at times this season, they are one of the top defensive and rebounding teams in the country. Purdue will be the best team that W&M has faced this season, and the top team in its non-conference slate. Coach Painter has proven numerous times that he can get the most out of his teams and when a team can defend and rebound, they have a chance to win a lot of games.
T-Mill: What type of defense should Purdue fans expect to see?
Kris: W&M uses mostly man defense, but there will be some zone mixed in. This season it has been mainly man and a match-up zone defense, but in years past, W&M has mixed in a few other zones. The Tribe has been very good defensively through the early part of the season. W&M currently leads the CAA in both defensive field goal and defensive 3-point field goal percentage. The Tribe is holding opponents to just 24.7 percent shooting from 3-point range, which ranks sixth nationally. Opponents are shooting just 38.5 percent from the field, which ranks 46th nationally. Saturday afternoon could turn into a real defensive battle with both teams ranking among the national leaders in field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense.
T-Mill: William & Mary doesn't look like a very deep team. Does Purdue's size and rebounding ability concern you?
W&M is deeper than you think, but most of the depth comes on the perimeter. In total, the Tribe will more than likely go nine deep, and if necessary, 10 depending on whether the front court is in foul trouble. A.J. Hammons has really come on strong for the Boilermakers, and Coach Painter has the ability to bring big guys into the lineup in waves with players like Donnie Hale, Travis Carroll, Jacob Lawson and Sandi Marcius complimenting Hammons. At the two forward positions, W&M has three players that will see the majority of the minutes in Gaillard, Rusthove and then reserve 6-9 forward Fred Heldring.
The defensive duties on Hammons will fall in the hands of Rusthoven and Heldring. Of the two, Heldring is the better post defender, but Rusthoven will see more minutes as the better offensive threat. Gaillard is a 6-8 athlete, who will play both in the post and on the perimeter. He has the ability to take over a game, as evidence of his 25-point effort at North Carolina as a sophomore, and he has been a force on the glass as well. The Tribe relies a lot on its guards to rebound along with the forward positions, so guys like senior Matt Rum and freshman Terry Tarpey, who are third and fourth on the team at over five rebounds each per game, will play key roles in trying to keep Purdue off the glass.
W&M's biggest strength rebounding this season has been its ability to rebound on the defensive end. The Tribe leads the CAA in defensive rebounding at 28.9 per game with a defensive rebounding percentage of 72.8. W&M's ability to limit Purdue's effectiveness in the low post and keep them off the glass with be a key if the Tribe hopes to continue its four-game winning streak.
Thanks Kris. I appreciate the answers and this looks like a game that will be much tougher than originally thought.