For the first time this year I am allowing myself to think that the NCAA Tournament may not be in this Purdue team's future. Is it good enough to win the requisite games to make the tournament? Absolutely! What we lack is the consistency that gives me the confidence to say, "of course we'll make it!" Having lost three of our last four games, twice in gut-wrenching fashion, we're at a crossroads. We can either lay down and die, or sack up and start playing Purdue basketball again. Let's step back from the ledge, because we're far from done.
You can make all the talent arguments you want, but the bottom line is that this team has one unrated player (John Hart) and four 4-star players (Robbie Hummel, Terone Johnson, Anthony Johnson, and D.J. Byrd) with everyone else rated as three-stars. That is plenty of talent to make an NCAA Tournament. Period. We also have at least four more 4-stars coming in the next two years, so recruiting is fine.
The final ten games will not be easy. We have five at home and five on the road. We need to win at least one road game and probably four of the five home games, but this is far from the impossible task that some make it out to be. I have seen enough good stretches of basketball to believe this team can beat anyone if thing are clicking. All we need to do is get them clicking with consistency.
Really, that is the one thing this team lacks. Even from the free throw line we have shown we can get it done. TJ was hitting in the Iowa and Michigan State games. Travis Carroll, who entered the season without hitting a collegiate free throw, has knocked down his shots in the last few games. We can get on an offensive roll and knock shots down, as evidenced by dropping 91 on Iona earlier. We can clamp down on teams defensively and cause havoc, as evidenced by the second half against Illinois. The only difference is that we now have very little margin for error.
Part of our problems with consistency is that our two best players, Lewis Jackson and Robbie Hummel, are playing at maybe 75% effectiveness. LewJack might even be at 60%. When your top two scorers are not 100% (and likely won't be at any point soon) it is hard to be consistent.
With that in mind, here are the top things we need to do going forward:
Attack the basket - This goes without saying, but we nearly pulled off a good win last night despite reverting to our "hot lava" offense for most of the night. We had the ball down one for most of the last 90 seconds, but never once tried to drive to the basket. Ryne Smith missed an open look (which was a shot I would have him take again), Robbie missed two threes, and TJ missed a free throw after getting fouled on a rebound.
A big factor last night was Kelsey Barlow going AWOL. The box score said he played nine minutes, but you could have fooled me. Offensively he did less than nothing, going 0-2 on two jumpers. Jump shooting is not his game. Kelsey is the only player that can attack the basket as well as LewJack, and his size means he can absorb more punishment. I don't know if he was pouting or not from losing his starting spot, but if he was, he needs to pull his head out of his rear end and play like good GDB again. This team absolutely needs good GDB.
TJ and AJ need to keep attacking. AJ's quickness paid off a few times last night and TJ has it in him to be a dynamic scorer. Ultimately, these are the four guys that can get to the basket, so they all need to have their license to shoot jumpers taken away. Drive and kickout to the real shooters like Ryno, Hart, and Rob.
Get the ball in the post - Many complaints have been directed at our post players, but they can't do a lot without the basketball. Travis Carroll, Jacob Lawson, and Sandi Marcius combined to go 2 of 4 for 4 points and five rebounds last night. The Chooch didn't play, and only one of those rebounds was on the offensive end. That is five touches by a post player where he is in a position to score. We have to triple that. After all, they can't be effective if they don't get the damn basketball.
Carroll is doing a great job of rotating to the basket off screens, but we're missing him most of the time when he is wide open. He did have a basket erased on a tip-in of a LewJack miss due to basket interference, but I don't fault him at all for that. The ball was in that middle ground of definitely coming out, but not totally off the rim. I've seen them both call and not call that. Unfortunately, it would have put us up six with just over seven minutes left, so it ended up being a huge call.
At least he was being aggressive. Lawson's basket was aggressiveness too, and Marcius has been establishing position down low. We have got to give these guys the ball even if it only leads to a foul. This conference isn't teaming with a ton of quality backups for big men. A random foul or two on a guy like Jared Sullinger, Cody Zeller, or Meyers Leonard can change the course of the game just by getting the ball down low and being aggressive toward the basket. No one respects our bigs right now, which is why we have to make an effort to give them the ball. It's not like the hot lava offense is working.
Stop shooting threes - It is clear to me that the license to shoot the three needs to be revoked from a lot of guys (unless the shot clock is running down, of course). Going forward, the only players I trust from long range are Ryno, Byrd, Hart, and Hummel. Everyone else is below 30% (except Carroll's 2 of 6). Everyone else needs to drive to the basket for the love of God!
Get tougher on defense - This is one of the hardest things because it again goes back to consistency, conditioning, and effort. Rob and LewJack are two of our better defenders, but there is only so much they can do in their limited capacity. We're leaving too many shooters open by overpursuit on the double-team. Last night the winning dunk was a result of overpursuiing leaving Jordan Morgan open. We're just not in the right positions right now, and that is disturbing since we pride ourselves on defensive smarts. Again, Barlow was AWOL last night and that was huge, but we still couldn't get the big stop with the crowd raring like we always used to be able to do.
Box out on rebounds - Another huge stretch last night was the opening five minutes of the second half when Michigan had three straight possessions that resulted in second chance points. I've been saying it for a long time, but Barlow is a player that needs to crash the glass on every shot that goes up. He has the athleticism to be a major factor on the glass, and I don't understand why we don't use him this way.
Free throw shooting - It is what it is at this point, but at least it has been better recently. One player I'd like to see get a little more aggressive at getting to the line is Ryno. He's a good free throw shooter and has proven he can drive off the pump fake, but he rarely looks to shoot on said drive or draw contact. Barlow is one of our better shooters at the line too, so he needs to look to get there.
The schedule - One thing a lot of people haven't talked about is simply the other teams executing very well. Yes, we're making defensive mistakes, but they mean very little unless the offense takes advantage of them. Last night Michigan's defense was switching well on screens to cut off potential drives. I noticed Michigan State doing that as well. This is a defensive-oriented league, so what the opposition does is a major factor too, no matter what we do. After all, Billy Oliver was left open, but he still had to hit all those shots. Given his shooting percentage before the game, it wasn't likely.
On the other end, you have to credit guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. for hitting tough shots when Michigan needed him to. Trey Burke is an excellent player that can score on the drive. As much as we lost this game, Michigan did not fold once Mackey was plugged back in. We had already had our trademark 10 minute awful stretch (split up into two five minute segments), and we still pulled ahead by four. From there, Michigan made some damn good plays.
Looking at the schedule we need at least one more road win in the last five road games and we need to win at least four at home. I don't think that is too much to ask. This Saturday at Northwestern has become a critical game. Beating the Wildcats on their floor gives us a major edge for when they come to Mackey. A sweep then establishes us as definitely higher in the hierarchy.
This conference is getting at least seven teams into the NCAAs, so you want to be in the top 7 when all is said and done. If we sweep Northwesterm, and beat both Penn State and Nebraska at home we cement ourselves ahead of those teams plus Iowa (since we already swept them. We also have an edge with the road win at Minnesota, meaning we're fighting in the creamy middle with Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. We can't do anything about the Badgers, but we do have at least three games left against the Fighting Illini and Hoosiers, with a possible rematch/elimination game in Indianapolis. One win over Illinois is already banked, so winning in Champaign (difficult, but far from impossible) would be huge. We've got to get one of those three in addition to the NW sweep and Nebraska and PSU wins. Getting two would be huge.
Must Win games: Northwestern x2, Nebraska, Penn State, Indiana (I am putting it here because they aren't a good road team and we're going to make Mackey about as hostile as possible that day).
Toss-up games: at Illinois, at Michigan (If we play them close at home while playing poorly we can beat them in Ann Arbor if we play well)
Very difficult, but not impossible: at Indiana (talk about a hostile atmosphere), Michigan State (Let's see what a full night's rest and home crowd does for us).
Would be absolutely shocked if we won: at Ohio State (thank goodness we play them once).
Of the remaining ten games I think the Indiana ones are the most interesting. The fans of each team have been sniping at each other for months, and the instant they beat Kentucky it went up about five notches. Purdue is desperate to prove that Indiana hasn't passed them. Our fans are both tired about hearing how they're back and honestly, some are a little bitter that they can decimate their own program via cheating, yet suddenly come back like its nothing and pass us when we saw years of hard work lost because of injuries at the absolute worst time. Mackey Arena is going to be a very hostile place for them on February 4th.
Conversely, we're going to be walking into a bear trap in Bloomington on March 4th, especially if we win in West Lafayette. Their fans will not want to give up a sweep to Purdue in the year of their return, especially with us struggling as we are. They'll want blood that day.
But that is all in the future. We have a few days, so it is time to refocus, beat Northwestern, then get a much-needed week off before hosting the Hoosiers.