The Indiana basketball program has been somewhat decimated with injuries. What is left of them is one big man and a collection of lightning guards. In theory, this is the exact kind of team that worried me at the start of the season. Purdue has always lacked the elite athleticism to stick with the quickest, the highest jumpers, and they just lost the last two defensive players of the year to graduation in Rapheal Davis and A. J. Hammons.
With Wisconsin’s loss to Northwestern, the Iowa loss, the Minnesota loss, but most so, the Nebraska loss is a haunting no show on the road. Purdue holds the tiebreaker over Maryland and Wisconsin, but neither team remains on their schedule. Their fate no longer lies in their own hands. They have to wait for Wisconsin to stumble one more time, while being unable to afford another stumble of their own.
The Boilermakers came away from Assembly Hall with an impressive road victory in hostile waters. They did the same at Maryland. The game right before that they crushed a ranked Northwestern team at home. All of a sudden, a top 20 offensive team most the year is now also a top 20 defensive team according to kenpom.
Previous Purdue teams relied on Hammons to block all access to the rim. This year’s team offers no such resistance. While Biggie has made strides on his body and defense this year, his block% is 2.3%. Haas’s is 4.5%. Hammons finished with a block percent more than twice that at 10.4%. This entire Purdue team’s block percentage added together is 9.9%. Let that sink in for a minute.
So how is it, that once again, Coach Matt Painter has created another top 20 defensive team?
It starts and ends with Purdue’s back court. The guards, who were thought to be this team’s weakness, have been the absolute strength of the team defensively and a defensive game plane designed to give up the right shots to the right player.
The image from Purdue’s win at IU that sticks out in my head was Carsen Edwards’ almost steal up the sideline. It was a routine ball reversal, but Carsen’s rocket boosters and awareness almost turned it into the punctuation mark at the end of a powerful defensive performance. Carsen’s body and lateral quickness allows him to check almost anyone. The question at the beginning of the year was whether Carsen’s defensive liabilities as a freshman would keep him off the court. Instead, it’s been his defensive intensity that’s allowed him to play through his offensive inconsistencies.
He still gets occasionally lost off the ball and draws some silly fouls, but he instincts are there. The steal he did come up with off an attempted entry pass on a fronted Hoosier big man was a tide changer. Edwards is the quickest player on the court for Purdue who’s shown a propensity to hound opposing point guards the entire length of the court. He’s got the strength and hops to bother ball handlers and come out of nowhere to swipe at balls. His instant defensive impact has been the biggest revelation from Purdue’s true freshman.
But the Boiler’s best defender, as written here and twitter and raved by Dakich in broadcasts, is Dakota Mathias. His transformation has been nothing short of hyperbole. He’s turned himself from a step-slow kid with good instincts into a twitchy-fast who uses his smarts and length to stay on the opposing team’s best player’s hips through drives and shots. It hasn’t been said enough how much his length is capable of bothering opposing shooters, even when he doesn’t stay in front of him. Dakota never gives up on a play, even when he gets caught on a screen or falls behind a step. There’s nothing more annoying for a shooter than losing sight of his guy behind him, but knowing the guy will be there the moment you try and pull-up on a jumper. Dakota is relentless, smart, and his length makes him a unique defender.
And then there’s PJ, who is the official post-script of this Purdue team. The ‘oh and by the way’ junior who is too short and slow to be this damn effective captain of the team. He can’t stay in front of defenders the way Carsen does, he doesn’t bother people with his length like Dakota, but he plays so hard, fights and studies his opposition. He got caught fouling Blackmon in that game against IU on a 3 when he went for a swipe when he read Blackmon pulling the ball up for a shot. He had scouted Blackmon enough to be inside his head. That time he just missed and hit arm instead of ball. Later, with the game on the line, he came away with the ball cleanly and it led to a change of possession in a key moment.
Guard play is what win’s it for you in March. That’s the cliche and the truth. Too often, we think it means our guards have to score more. It also means your guards have to stick others, and Purdue hasn’t had a collection of defenders at the guard position since the Kramer led squads. Look at some of the stat lines this Purdue team has caused in B10 play:
Vic Law: 0-7, 1 pt
James Blackmon: 3-14, 11 pts
Robert Johnson: 2-11, 8 pts
Melo Trimble: 4-14, 22 pts
Isiah Brown: 4-14, 11 pts
Anthony Cowen: 2-10, 6 pts
Tai Webster: 5-19, 15 pts
Purdue has effectively run the best shooting guards in the B10 off the 3-point line, forced them into tough shots, and made life tough for them. They haven’t been perfect. Peter Jok went off, so did Nate Mason, but the season is long and great players get hot. But this squad keeps getting better, especially defensively.
Guard play wins in March. Purdue’s are ready.