As I was eating a post-game meal with my nephew at Mad Mushroom I was scouting Twitter for reaction to the Boilers. For what it is worth to us, people are starting to come around. Andy Katz has already admitted he was wrong and said we're going to contend for the Big Ten title. There are others out there that haven't even ranked us yet, but if we continue our play, they will come around. Katz is only the first. Those that don't rank us will only continue to look like barely functioning simians.
Everybody was impressive today. Aside from E'Twaun Moore coming out smoking hot, we got help from nearly every member that played. Even the crowd was loud and into sans Paint Crew. My nephew had a very enjoyable experience at his first game, and he got to see a Purdue team that is really beginning to come around. I am still concerned with the limited minutes of the Hanson Brothers, but that will only be a factor against the few teams that have a major size advantage against us. We're still going to have a lot of favorable matchups the rest of this season.
It also helps to have a pair of aces like E'Twaun and JaJuan Johnson. When both are on the team at the same time at least one of them demands a double-team. That opens things up for the other three players to be the elusive third scorer. There will always be open looks available, and we're starting to see others take advantage of that. Others can be derisive about scoring 50 points in a half and have it be entertaining for a Big Ten game, but how do you defend us when JJ can own the low block, E'Twaun is in Assassin mode, Ryne Smith is open for 3's, and LewJack is driving the lane? Welcome to the question that eight other Big Ten coaches must answer over the next two months.
Positives from the Northwestern game:
Ryne Smith - This young man had an outstanding game today and deserved the standing ovation he was given when he fouled out. I think we can end the discussion about him being a contributor, at least as long as he continues to average 15 points per game in Big Ten play. It is not just his scoring that is an attribute. He is willing to get on the floor and do the dirty work, which is becoming infectious as E'Twaun, TJ, and a number of other guys were on the floor today. He's becoming a solid defender, and his free throw shooting will be very handy in closing out games. He was 7 for 7 from the line, which is Robbie-esque. I advocate that we now call him The Closer because of his ability at the line and the way hit a pair of dagger threes late.
D.J. Byrd - The Birdman did a lot today that didn't show up in the box score, more so than Ryno even. His one basket was a huge offensive basket where he crashed the boards perfectly. He also had a few nice hustle plays. His scoring will come and go, which I'm fine with. He can be the Little Things replacement for Robbie is Smith can be the 3-point and free throw shooting. That leaves the reabounding...
Kelsey Barlow - ... and Barlow can be that rebounding replacement. I keep saying it: no one on this roster has his athletic ability to crash the boards. I would much rather have an 11 rebound game like he did against Indiana State than an 11 point game. Today we got good GDB for some free throws and a really sweet dunk. He still had some frustrating moments, but he is rounding into exactly the type of player we need.
Lewis Jackson - We can have a very dangerous element in our offense as long as LewJack has the room to drive and occasionally score. He had some pretty dumb passes today, but he was a dangerous weapon in every phase of the game.
Travis Carroll - I know he had only two minutes, but it was a positive two minutes with a pair of rebounds and what should have been a nice putback. We'll get him some more run. I have resigned myself to the fact that the Hansons are not going to get a lot of minutes. All we need them to do is be capable of spelling JJ for a few minutes and, if necessary, be rebound guys if we happen to face bigger lineups. JJ has shown he can handle himself just fine against most everyone. We're only going to need the Hansons against teams like Duke that have a huge front line capable of neutralizing JJ. In that case, I don't mind running Carroll or Sandi Marcius there almost as decoys to prevent teams from doubling or tripling on JJ.
The Machine - I have to call it this because I have long referred to this season as being the one in which all of the parts came together. That's really what you're seeing. Our offense and defense are both becoming units in which the parts accomplish some great things when put together. Sure, it helps to have two superior pieces in E'Twaun and JJ, but the rest of the guys know their roles, strengths, and limitations. Those pieces compliment each other, and it builds quite a machine. A prime example is what I mentioned in the opening. How do you defend us when E'Twaun and JJ are the floor with LewJack driving, Ryne Smith waiting for open looks (which he is getting) and players like D.J. Byrd and Kelsey Barlow collapsing to the basket? Terone Johnson is going to come on, and John hart will soon be back.
Then you have the defense. That can be summed up by E'Twaun's hustle play where he overtook a lazy Northwestern player that non-chalantly went after the ball, yet E'Twaun somehow knocked the ball off of him. If you have JJ patrolling within five feet of the basket and the other four player defending like mad bastards on the perimeter it helps the offense because they don't have to do as much in order to win. It is a lot easier to win when you score 75 per game if you simply hold team below 70. Others may not like it, but it accomplishes the task of winning the game.
It is a testament to how well the pieces are playing when I don't talk about JJ and E'Twaun that much when they combine for 50 points. E'Twaun had a career high today and came out shooting the lights out of the gym. JJ was his usual self. 340+ other teams would kill to be in our position with them, yet the media, until now, has acted like we're under some curse because Robbie is out. That is what makes this season so satisfying. We're seeing this team come together and guys that the mainstream media is ignoring so they can write boilerplate articles about JJ and E'Twaun scoring 50 are coming together. You. Dear reader, see this not because you read here, but because you watch this team and see what I see.
Of course, that is not to take away from JJ and E'Twaun. I never want to short change them, but it is really to the point where I have to come up with new adjectives for them.
E'Twaun Moore - I saved the best for last, but my goodness did he have himself a game today. The first half was him bombing from deep. In fact, when he missed 3-point attempt number 6 (his first miss) I was more shocked than when the first five went down. The second half showed him having more "F*** it, I'm scoring" moments where he drove and either scored or got to the line. Again, how do you defend that? You can't!
JaJuan Johnson - Of course the 19 points and nine rebounds are nice, but what is nicer is his huge "This is my house" swat of a Serbian taunter.
Negatives from the Northwestern game:
Free Throws (second half) - This is the only major negative, and it really isn't that big. We struggled a bit down the stretch at the line, but it will come together. So it was the difference between a 20 point win and 13 point win. Big deal.
Defense - Northwestern is the first team to top 60 points against us since the Richmond game, but what does it matter when we score as efficiently as we did today? We've clearly struggled to stop the Princeton offense (and why Luka Mirkovic thinks he can't taunt in our gym is beyond me). It just makes me thankful we have no scheduled games left against Princeton offense teams. This is just nitpicking though. We held John Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer, to 11 points.
We should be heavily favored in the next two games against Penn State and Iowa, so it is time to go into business mode. Take care of those, and we're 4-0 going up to Minnesota against a Golden Gopher team that has to feel a little up against it already with an 0-2 start. That Minnesota game starts a critical stretch of the season that will likely make or break the Big Ten race for us, but we're already off to a much needed excellent start. You can't win the Big Ten in the first two games, but you can certainly lose it.
It is still all about the Machine coming together. In two Big Ten games against good teams we have trailed for a total of 41 seconds. Going into 2011 I could only be happier if a certain #4 came walking out of the tunnel for warm-ups.