After 10 games this season Purdue looked lost at 4-6. Notre Dame had just drilled the Boilers in Indianapolis for a third loss in four games and the only thing that looked semi-promising was a win at Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
After 10 more games Purdue looks like a completely different team. The Boilers went 7-3 against a much tougher schedule and they find themselves as a surprise member of the upper half of the Big Ten as we approach the halfway mark of conference play. Purdue is 4-3 in the league and sits in front of two teams (Minnesota and Illinois) who were lights out in the non-conference season and two more (Iowa and Northwestern) that looked a lot better than the Boilers.
It is clear to everyone that this team has made incredible strides. There is also still a lot of growth that needs to be done. Purdue blew an eight-point lead in the final 1:30 against Villanova (albeit with a gigantic assist from the refs), and yesterday they blew an 11-point lead with under eight minutes to go. There are still long stretches where the offense is questionable at best.
Still, as we enter the stretch of the season that will decide if Purdue is going to play somewhere in the postseason the Boilers look positioned to be more than an afterthought in the Big Ten. I was able to watch the Iowa game today, and here are some of my observations:
A.J. Hammons needs to watch the power dribble - Hammons has a tendency to load up with the power dribble when going up. This works at times, but too often it can lead to the ball being slapped away and a turnover as opposed to a basket or foul. Again, this is something that will come with time. More than a few times this year I have seen he needs to just take it up strong. I hope he gets it starting Wednesday. Nothing would please Purdue fans more than seeing him power up strong and knocking Cody Zeller flat on his ass just once to establish dominance. I don't even care if he is whistled for the foul.
Donnie Hale continues to be underrated in his development - Who saved Purdue's ass the most yesterday? I would argue that it was Hale, whose offensive tip-in of a Hammons miss with 1:46 left in regulation trimmed a three-point lead to one. If he isn't there Purdue is down three and Iowa has the ball. Hale also had a key defensive rebound with 18 seconds left in the overtime. Hale is a better than expected rebounder and his ability to hit the mid-rang jumper is something few others have on the team. Yesterday's 12 points came in a very efficient 15 minutes.
The Fistful of Johnsons offense does not work - More than a few times this year we have seen Anthony Johnson, Terone Johnson, and Ronnie Johnson on the floor at the same time. It hasn't worked well. Purdue is not blessed with guys that can knock down the open jump shot. The three Johnsons are penetrators, not shooters (yes, you can giggle). When they are all on the floor it is usually with Hammons and another forward, and that means no one is on the floor that can be a reliable threat to hit a jumper. I've been disappointed with Anthony's development because I really thought he could be a shooter. Ronnie seems to leave everything short. Terone can be streaky, but his game is getting to the rim. With two on the floor things can work. With all three, no.
Pissing away leads - Purdue was up 11 yesterday with under eight minutes and gave it up in almost no time. The only game that Purdue took a big lead and truly salted it away (aside from a purchased win like Lamar) was West Virginia. Again, this goes back to the stagnant offense. Yesterday Mike Gesell got hot and Purdue couldn't hit anything or made some costly turnovers. This is where we really miss the Red Button. E`twaun Moore was a personal run-stopper and could get a basket whenever it needed to break momentum. Purdue lacks that right now.
Purdue defends leading scorers well - What do Roy Devyn Marble, Trey Burke, Juwan Staten, Dylan Talley, and D.J. Newbill have in common? They are all a team's leading scorers that Purdue held well below their average in the Boilers' last five games. You can add Brandon Paul and Keith Appling onto that list too. Aside from Burke, who is a phenomenal player and guy that killed us with his passing off the drive, Purdue has done an excellent job of not getting beat by the opposition's top players.
Secondary and tertiary scorers? Not so much - Now we throw in Gary Harris, Shavon Shields, Eron Harris, Evan Ravenel, and Gesell as guys that gave Purdue fits despite not often being a team's top option. Harris is probably the only one of that group that teams really prepare for. The Michigan game was a microcosm of that. We did almost too good of a job on Burke. When he drove we gave him too much respect and left a shooter wide open. It's a little like if Purdue contained Zeller and Victor Oladipo on Wednesday only to get lit up by Jeremy Hollowell or Remy Abell. I do like the improvement of RJ and TJ on the perimeter, however.
Guys are going to be up and down, thus there will be rotations - Everyone has been wondering where Jacob Lawson's minutes have gone. I speculate that they have disappeared momentarily based on who has played well in games and who works hard in practice. Rapheal Davis moved into the starting lineup because he was scoring more, but was shutout yesterday. Lawson has two points since scoring 10 against Illinois.
Painter is going to go with who is hot. Right now, I think only Ronnie, Terone, D.J., and A.J. are the only four definite players that will get minutes. They have been getting the most minutes. Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll seem to split with each other depending on the matchup, but if someone like Hale plays well it is going to take from Lawson. The only change I might like to see is maybe a little more Dru Anthrop and less Anthony Johnson. Dru (in an albeit extremely small career sample size) has been the better shooter (50%), 3-point shooter (33%), and has been a stingy defender that makes smart decisions. AJ hasn't shown that yet.
Energy in overtime - When Purdue gave up the lead yesterday they looked dead, but in the overtime the Boilers won the final two minutes on energy alone. It's almost like the dive for the steal by Byrd early in the OT plugged the team back in. Offensive rebounds were huge in the extra session and Purdue got it done with stout defense once it did get the lead in the last two minutes. If the Boilers can continue that level of energy at all times it is going to finish strong.
The rest of the season - If Purdue matches the last 10 game mark of 7-3 it will do so against the meat of its schedule. In that stretch Purdue has three games against teams it has already beaten, albeit in Mackey Arena. They also get Northwestern twice, who is a team Purdue really needs to sweep this year.
Three of the toughest games (Indiana, Michigan State, and Michigan) are at home, however, where Purdue has been really good defensively except for the Ohio State game when it could not get the one stop it desperately needed. Take that game away and Big Ten teams have scored 61, 42, and 62 (in overtime) points along with the 52 West Virginia had.
A 7-3 mark over the next 10 would put Purdue at 18-12 overall with a home finale against a Minnesota team that is fading a bit. Would that be enough to claw back to the Bubble of the NCAA tournament? Well, Purdue's RPI is finally above 100 (It's at 99) for the first time this year and that is without beating one of the conference's elite. If Purdue beats the teams it has already proven it can beat, sweeps Northwestern, and springs an upset or two then who knows what can happen.
I think we can all agree now that Purdue has proven it can at least play with anyone. Michigan has looked unbeatable at time and for 25 minute the Boilers were leading them. That wasn't going to happen if the same team that lost to Eastern friggin' Michigan shows up. Even yesterday doesn't happen if the EMU team shows up. Purdue was not resilient enough to win a game yesterday earlier this year, but now it is. Really, the EMU game and the Villanova one that was stolen (since ‘Nova upset Syracuse AND Louisville last week) hurt the most. Reverse those two and take everything else exactly as it happened and Purdue is now 13-7 and looking a lot better.
As I said though, we can play with anyone. Many of these games are still a long shot, but so was Purdue being in sixth place this deep into the Big Ten season. We're going to hang around for awhile in this race, so we might as well play for keeps. It will be most interesting when the Hoosiers come to town on Wednesday. I expect Indiana to win and they should because they are more experienced and talented, but If Purdue pulls the upset it will be a gigantic confidence boost for a team that is already gaining steam every game.