Sitting up in press row last night, half checking twitter, half watching the game, half looking at anything else - don’t even talk to me about math, engineer people - I couldn’t quite get this feeling that something was different on the court. Not entirely different. Not even drastically different. But something. I’ve been having this feeling most the season. It might have started during Purdue’s trip to Taipei.
There would be moments in the game when the ball would go into a players hand - Dakota’s coming hard off a screen, Vincent in the post, Haas in the post, or Carsen anywhere - and it would just stay there. It’d stick. It’d stick because Mathias was driving to the hoop, stopping and pumping his man into the air and past him before a silky jumper splashed through the twine. For Vincent, it was a serious of dribbles, impressive footwork, and then a mid-range shot that my analytical heart would shout ‘NO!’ at before that, too, found the net. For Haas? Just the slow disintegration of a fellow human as he pounded: the ball onto the court, his back into their chest, his hip into their side, and then the ball off glass.
Carsen is a whole other animal. Sometimes he just stared down the defender before launching. Other times, he was a burst of lightning going by his defender, all the defenders. My favorite is when he grabs a rebound and there’s already three defenders back in position and he just takes off, bow-legged and beautiful, until those three defenders are spinning around and wondering what storm just blew through.
It was hurricane #3, for clarification.
This Purdue team is just different this year. They’re not as reliant on the one thing they’ve been best at over the last two seasons. Passing.
In 2016, the Boilermaker’s assisted on 64.1% of their made field goals. That was the 8th best mark in the nation. Last year, they were second in the country at 65.4%.
This year they are assisting on 61.4% of their shots. That’s just 26th best in the country.
These are all according to Kenpom. But most importantly, they explain that weird feeling I’ve been having. This Purdue team, more than any in recent memory, is not as dependent on a good pass to get a good shot.
After four years of developing this senior class and the recruiting of a fireball from Texas, this Purdue team finally has the thing that might give Coach Painter the ammunition to break through to the Elite Eight. He has guys that can just go get a bucket. Carsen Edwards is the easy answer. He finally found his range again last night, but he’s spent all year getting to and attacking the hoop while drawing fouls and making his free throws.
Isaac Haas might be the most consistent go get a basket guy in the country. His development at the line has made him impossible to guard. You can’t just foul him and you certainly can’t guard him 1 on 1.
Vincent Edwards is the perfect paring with Haas. He provides the three S’s necessary to take advantage of all the big man’s attention: speed, spacing, and smarts. Edwards is a match-up nightmare. He’s good enough in the post to take a smaller player on. He’s good enough attacking the hoop to drive his guy if his defender is intent on stopping his jumper which is good enough to always attract attention.
Maybe most surprising is how Dakota Mathias has subtly become someone who can score with the ball in his hand. His reputation combined with a great pump-fake has made him coming off a screen even more dangerous. He’s become really good at catching the ball with a head start and keeping his defender on his hip and slowing a half-step early and drawing the contact that gets him two free throws.
P. J. Thompson, for all his lack of creating offense, is shooting better than 50% from 3 and looking to run in transition more.
There’s periphery pieces that are pushing this Purdue team to new levels. Ryan Cline, finally healthy after an early back injury that stunted his shot, has found his groove again while also displaying a new ability to drive to the hoop and finish. He is not quick or particularly creative with his handle, but he’s big and strong and knows when the court is tilted in his favor.
Matt Haarms is a 7’3” unicorn capable of moving like a wing. It causes chaos for defenses, and last night, he showed the potential to make shots off the dribble. I assure you, every coach in the B10 will watch those shots with fear in their eyes.
But maybe what makes this team most dangerous is exactly what they’ve not done as much of this year. Passing. Almost everyone on the roster is a good to great passer. Dakota Mathias and Cline are wizards. Carsen Edwards is sneaky good at finding people near the basket when he drives and pulls help defenders. P. J. Thompson just doesn’t make mistakes. Vincent Edwards has always been Purdue’s second-steadiest guy with the ball in his hands. Haas has improved with his timing and kicking it out of double-teams.
And everyone can shoot.
It’s just now, they can also make their own shots. Purdue is 12-2. They’ve won 8 straight. They’ve won at Marquette and Maryland, they’ve beaten Arizona on a neutral court by 20, and taken it to Butler at the Crossroads Classic. Kenpom now has them ranked in the top 5 of the country with the 8th best offense and 12th best defense.
But people will say it’s still just Purdue. Coach Painter is still there. This team has a ceiling and it’s the Sweet 16.
But that funny feeling I get watching them in person is something else.
I’m watching a National Title Contender.