Playing "cupcakes" in the early part of the season always has some degree of risk for power conference teams. If you beat them, so what? If you don't... oh no. In addition to that, this is often one of the "biggest" games of the season for these teams. Not biggest in a "win a championship" sense, as they do have their own conferences and such. Rather, biggest in a "win this and we're on SportsCenter and our grandma is telling all her friends at the Curves" sense. Case in point: No. 10 Florida beat North Florida by eight tonight, while No. 8 Syracuse got all they could handle for most of the game against Cornell.
With that in mind, I'm not sure why so many people expected Purdue to come out and trounce a Northern Kentucky team that had everything to gain and nothing to lose tonight. The Norse still can't make the NCAA Tournament, with their "recent D-1 addition" status, so tonight and their game Sunday at No. 1 Kentucky are their "big stage" games. Purdue, meanwhile, went 16-18 last year, was playing without its starting center, and had yet to play in a regular season game with a roster that was nearly completely renovated from last year.
Seeing people say things on Twitter like "ugly win" and "how was it that close?" makes me wonder if people think Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson are still suiting up. This is a young team, and young teams don't tend to just come out and dazzle from day one (Kentucky's NBA team being an exception).
With that said, let's look at tonight's game. Starting with...
- For most of the game, Purdue looked more like the 2012-13 team than the traditional "Matt Painter" team defensively. Shooters were left wide open, despite (or allowing?) the Norse hitting 13-of-26 from long-range. When Purdue did try to guard the shooters, it left cutters wide open for layups. How do you fix this? Pressure the ball. Other than Kendall Stephens's four fouls, Purdue wasn't dealing with foul trouble. There's no reason the PG and wings can't get into ballhandlers and make passing difficult. Simply put, Northern Kentucky just looked faster than Purdue's guards. That's not a good sign, but should improve slightly Tuesday night when there's a gigantic AJ Hammons clogging up the lane.
- The teams tied with 35 rebounds apiece. Half of Northern Kentucky's 35 rebounds came off the offensive glass, allowing for 17 second-chance points. This actually matches up with Purdue's stats pretty evenly. The problem is, Northern Kentucky's two tallest players were 6-foot-7, one of which was a guard. Purdue was a much taller and also a much bigger team than Northern Kentucky, so it should have dominated in the paint. I wish I could say AJ Hammons changes this too, and it likely will, but let's not make AJ out to be the second coming of Dennis Rodman or anything.
- Errick Peck. He just went up a ton of spots on the pecking order (see what I did there?) after his performance tonight. He had 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. He hit five-of-six from the field, but more importantly one-of-one from the 3-point line. That one three happened with a minute left, when Purdue needed it most. If you didn't watch the game, take my word that it was a HUGE shot.
- Shooting. I know, it definitely didn't feel like Purdue shot well tonight, but the Boilers were almost 50% from the field and 7-for-15 from long-range. Other than Raphael Davis going 1-7, the Boilers honestly had a pretty impressive shooting night. Oh, let's not forget free-throw shooting. Hell, that deserves its own point...
- Free-throw shooting. Purdue was 16-for-20 (80%) from the foul line. I know, those aren't exactly sophomore-year Keaton Grant numbers, but what would you have paid last year to see the Johnson brothers go 6-for-8 from the foul line, including two-for-two with seconds remaining in a game Purdue was down one in?
- The way the team played down the stretch. Instead of one guy trying to take over, the Boilers stuck together and got the win. Terone Johnson put it better after the game, in a quote shared by @CEmmaFox on Twitter: "We didn’t have guys hollering at each other, cussing each other out. We had a lot of that last year." That's definitely a positive.
- Finally, Purdue WON. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't as big of a margin as most expected. It wasn't perfect. It was, however, a win. And Purdue is 1-0. In March, they're not going to look at the score. They're going to see the "W" and move on. If this was a loss, it'd be a different story. For now, a win is good enough.