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Time For Matt Painter to “Be a Better Coach”

Matt said it at the end of last season. So far, so good, but now is the time to prove it.

Purdue v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Last March, I sat court side and watched the incredible collapse of the Boilermakers in Denver. I then sat in the press conference and listened to Matt Painter talk about the gut wrenching loss. Towards the end of the presser, Matt said, “I have to be a better coach.” I was impressed by that. He took responsibility for a flukey loss. He said he needed to improve, and this season, I have seen the improvement. Even the most avid Painter hater has to acknowledge that winning the outright Big10 is a major accomplishment.

Now, however, is the time for Matt to show his improvement as a head coach. The regular season title is awesome, but this team is capable of a post season run, and the post season is where Painter will be judged. The best indicator of Matt’s improvement, or lack there of, will come Friday at noon against a red hot Michigan team brimming with confidence.

Michigan is a terrible match-up for the Boilermakers. The combination of Walton at the point and Wagner at the 4/5 is the exact recipe for disaster, as we saw in a “not as close as the score indicated” 82-70 drubbing at the hands of Wolverines in their previous meeting. Walton went for 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists and Mo Wagner torched Purdue to the tune of 24 points on 10-15 shooting, including 4-8 from 3. The majority of the Walton/Wagner points came either on the pick and roll, or the pick and pop. That is Purdue’s defensive weakness, and at some point in March, they are going to have to figure it out if they plan on making a deep run.

Personally, I’m glad we’ve got Michigan again. This is the time for Painter to show his improvement. In the first half of the previous Michigan game, Purdue attempted to “ice” the pick and roll, with Biggie hanging back to head off Walton drives on the ball screen, while PJ attempted to recover. This is how Purdue attempts to guard most pick and rolls, but Mo Wagner is not your average screener. As soon as Wagner saw Biggie hang back to ice the screen and roll, Wagner turned the pick and roll into a pick and pop, setting the screen and then popping out to the 3 point line instead of rolling to the basket. When Walton turn the corner, he becomes Biggie’s responsibility, but that leaves the diminutive P.J. Thompson trying to close out on the 6’10 Wagner, and he just isn’t big enough to bother that shot.

In the second half, Painter made an adjustment. Instead of icing the screen and roll, Purdue switched the screen and roll. In theory, this should prevent the pass on the pick and pop and as long as Biggie can get out and cut off Walton, the initial screen action is dead. This was somewhat effective, except Walton then calmly backed the ball out, Michigan spread the floor, and now it’s Biggie vs Walton at the top of the key and P.J. vs Wagner in the post. Walton can drive Biggie whenever he wants, and Wagner can score over P.J. whenever he wants. I don’t blame Matt for trying this, because his defense was being gutted in the first half, and switching the ball screen is the easiest on the fly adjustment.

I’m sure the Purdue coaching staff went over that Michigan tape with a fine toothed comb, and I’m also sure every team Purdue plays in the NCAA tournament will also go to that tape if they have a 4/5 who can stretch the floor. This is the perfect opportunity for Painter to adjust his defense on the 1/5 ball screen.

He can do this in a variety of ways:

  • Play it the same, but change the match ups.

This is the easiest fix. Switch Dakota onto Walton, and Vincent on to Wagner. Dakota can contest the pick and pop better with his size, and Vincent can handle either the Wagner roll or the Walton drive better than Biggie. This leaves P.J. on Abdur-Rahkman and Biggie on Zac Irvin. While not ideal, I’ll take my chances on getting beaten by Abdur-Rahkman/Irvin over the Walton/Wagner combo any day of the week.

  • Hard hedge the the screen, forcing Walton to retreat instead of turning the corner.

In previous years, this is how Purdue dealt with the screen and roll. This almost necessitates Vincent playing Wagner, because Walton will attack Biggie on the hedge looking to pick up fouls on our most important player. Vincent is much better at moving his feet laterally, and then recovering. If Purdue goes to this strategy, the pick and pop is basically neutralized, but the roll become a big problem. Vincent would have to work hard to recover with his hands up to the rolling Wagner and the help defense would have to be on point.

  • Trap the Walton off the screen

In this scenario, Dakota would need to be on Walton, but Biggie could stay with Wagner. When Wagner sets the screen, Biggie would show hard with his hands up, attempting to prevent the pass to the rolling Wagner and Dakota would come off the Wagner screen looking to trap Walton, forcing him to pick up his dribble. I like this as a change up, and not a game plan, because I feel like this strategy has diminishing returns once the other team knows it’s coming, and again, it puts Biggie in foul jeopardy because Walton will attack him.

  • Keep the same strategy, but change the focus

In the first game, Purdue was more worried about the Walton drive than the Wagner pop. Biggie would lay back, allowing the easy horizontal dish off to the open Wagner behind the arc. Instead of focusing the defense on Walton, focus the defense on Wagner instead. Have Biggie play the pop aggressively, running Wagner off the 3 point line, and make Walton turn the corner and finish at the rim. If Walton beats us by making contested lay ups, pat him on the back and wish him well in the next game.

  • Attack Wagner on the defense

The best way to stop the Walton/Wagner ball screen is for Wagner to be on the bench. When Wagner is guarding Biggie, the ball has to go to Biggie in the post. When Wagner is guarding Vincent, the ball has to go to Vincent in the mid post. When Haas comes in he has to work Wagner on the offensive end, even if it means picking up a few offensive fouls in the process. If Haas can draw 2 fouls on Wagner, he has done his job, even if it means him picking up 3 fouls.

Of course, Matt Painter forgot more about basketball while I was writing this article than I’ve ever known, so he could come up with something subtle that I don’t have the acumen to even consider. All I know is that if Purdue allows the Walton/Wagner combo to go for 40+ points, it’s going to be a long night in D.C. for Purdue. Matt Painter said he “needed to be a better coach.” Now is the perfect time for that to happen.