The Purdue Boilermakers has a top 10 defense this year. They're 6th in the nation in Kenpom's defensive rating. They lead the nation in opponent's effective field goal percentage allowing the 7th best 3 point shooting percentage against them and the second best percentage inside the arc.
The Boilers have done all this despite missing the reigning defensive player of the year Rapheal Davis for the last two games, including going into Pittsburgh to take on a very talented and tough Panthers team, and having three players in the rotation who are absolute negatives on the defensive end - the two true freshman, Ryan Cline and Caleb Swanigan, and the slow-footed Kendall Stephens. You could argue Dakota has struggled defensively as well, particularly on the bar as he's prone to hand-check fouls against anyone driving on him.
So how does a team comprised of that many not good defenders have a defense playing this well? First off, size. There's just nothing you can do to make your team taller, and the Boiler's have the sixth best effective height in the nation. There's a lot of metrics and numbers that go into the effective height metric, but for a simplistic take, height affects defense in a significant way - particularly, there's a correlation between the taller a team is, the better they rate with effective field goal percentage, 2 pt%, and block rate. Makes sense, right?
Of course, being tall isn't enough to have a great defense. A. J. Hammons has lead the Big Ten in blocks in each of his three seasons in West Lafayette, so we already knew he knew how to protect the rim, but the revelation this year has been how improved Isaac Haas has looked on the defensive end this year. He's blocking 10.4 percent of the shots taken while he's on the court, a mark that's 29th best in the country, and .7% more than Hammons this year. Freshman bigs are notoriously bad at defense, they struggle with all the nuances of containing pick and rolls, and when and where the defense is exposed on the back, and Haas looks to have a lot more confidence this year in patrolling the paint. He's also quicker, losing 25 lbs. this offseason, and working on his footwork. The height was always there, now he's starting to put the rest of the package together.
But make no mistake, as nice as it is to have two seven footers, if we didn't have a scheme that funneled offensive players in the right direction, those big men would be caught in a lot of situations where there only recourse to stopping a basket would be to foul. Painter has put a very clever defense on the court, particularly without Davis on the court.
Ryan Cline is just not there athletically. He doesn't have the lateral quickness to cut off driving lanes. Dakota Mathias is not a whole bunch better in this field. Caleb Swanigan has been blown by by about every player he's guarded this year. Oh, and Kendal Stephens who has done some nice things off the ball this year, might be the worst pick and roll defender in the league. He tries to force his man away from the pick by jumping sideways and cutting off the pick, but instead just leads himself to getting blown by when his man crosses back over from the pick.
Painter has countered this by dropping his biggest men way deep on pick and rolls, containing the driver while his defender chases behind to help deter closer mid-range shots. This leaves the big man's length to alter any shot as he back pedals and cuts off high percentage looks at the basket. What it leaves is the screen open for mid-range or 3 point shots, shots that Painter prefers to give up over getting beat deep in the paint. In the NBA, giving up open 3's is a no-no, but in college where good shooters are almost impossible to find, it's paid off for one of the best defenses in the nation. There's just not enough players that can reliably knock down even open jump shots to scare you.
Also, our defensive rotation this year has been very good. This is where Edward's length, and our point guard's quickness has really helped. If the screener is a threat, we've had a guy jump over as the ball was delivered and forced that big man into making quick decisions, pull up or try and attack. Mathias is much better in this aspect than in one on one scenarios, even if he's still prone to over committing and getting blown by.
But what we do the most to counter pick and rolls is to just simply switch the screen. For instance, if Thompson is guarding the ball and Cline's defender comes over to set a screen, as Thompson's man clears the screen Cline picks him up and Thompson takes Cline's original man. This is not revolutionary. The Warrior's just one the title, in large part, for their ability to have a bunch of like sized wings capable of switching most pick and rolls. The Boilers are full of wings capable of guarding multiple positions, particularly Edwards, Davis, and Hill who have all done a good job fighting for position in the post or corralling smaller, quicker players on the perimeter.
However, the Warriors also won the title by forcing switches that left Curry being guarded by forwards and centers that had no chance containing him. The Boilers are smart with this, too. Against Pittsburgh, they switched pretty much every pick and roll, except pick and rolls that involved Haas and Hammons. Instead of switching, they just dropped the big man back, and had the guard try to get around the screen and chase from behind. This forces tricky mid-range shots between two defenders and clogs up a lot of the easy release valve passes guards prefer.
One thing to keep a look at though, is Painter's preference to have Swanigan switch instead of drop back when involved in pick and rolls. To be honest, Swanigan's defense has been poor all year. He's not very fluid and doesn't seem to have a sense for anything beside a missed shot, but he's done okay against quicker guards by dropping back and allowing them to take pull up jumpers. This has been fine against the competition we've played so far, but a team like Indiana? They'll torch us, and expect Painter to change his approach a little and not put Swanigan on an island against a dangerous perimeter threat.
We're thin on perimeter defenders compared to years pass, or at least we're playing a lot more defensive negatives than normal, and Painter has adjusted by calling for a much more conservative approach on the defensive end. We're the 319th best team at forcing turnovers, one of the worst teams in the nation, and is quite the change from the Kramer years. Instead of forcing teams into chaos, we're forcing them into slow deaths, and so far it's worked magnificently.
A few more observations:
Kendall is still cold
I still don't think he's taking that many bad shots, but as jumboheroes brought to my attention yesterday, he just looks off-balance the last few games. The Kid's shot will start falling, not because he's going to take different shots, but because he's going to get back in rhythm and find his fundamentals again.
Caleb is still struggling on offense
Since this is the internet, and you guys are really anti-Biggie criticism it seems, here's my disclaimer: Yes, I know he's a true freshman, and a young one at that. Yes, I think he's going to get a whole lot better. Yes, I believe in the kid. He's a very good passer and an excellent rebounder, but man, he has been bad on offense and defense minus those two skills. He has two modes: I've got the ball, I'm gonna shoot it, and let me take this rock and hold it a second, see what opens up for other people. He's so much better when he's in that second mode, and so is the team. We're almost a fourth of the way into the season now. His potential and growth is fine, but this is real basketball and games that count and he's been not good. On defense, he's just getting blown by, half-helping on drives and only willing to hold his hands up above his head while not committing to protecting the rim. He looks to switch early, and crashes the board every time to the liability of getting back on defense. He'll be good, but right now, he's Kevin Love, if Kevin Lowe didn't have a consistent jump shot or post moves to score at will.
This team is really fun
That said, I really do like Caleb. He had some absolute huge defensive rebounds. The other freshman came alive against Pitt, Hill was excellent at points in the second half and has been great at the basket, Thompson just makes plays, and Edwards is getting an assist on a quarter of his possessions. There's not a player that's not likable on this team. We have all the pieces to do something special.