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A Clinic in Team Basketball I Wouldn’t Trade for Anything

A reader asked my thoughts on what I would do if trades were allowed in Big Ten basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue is currently ranked fifth in the country, has more quality wins than anyone else, is 3-0 in true road games (all against teams currently in the KenPom top 40) and could be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released in two months. These statements haven’t really been true since 2010, when Purdue was as high as No. 3 before… unfortunate things happened. For most college basketball teams this would mean they are powered by an individual superstar that is sure to be a lottery pick in June. A general rule of thumb is that to win the NCAA title you need at least three players who make it to the NBA.

Purdue might break that rule, but it is good because it puts on a clinic in team basketball.

Yes, Purdue is talented. Is anyone a sure-fire First Round pick though? According to NBA’s latest mock draft not a single Purdue player would be among the 60 picks in either round. A lot of this is bogus. Why draft a polished Vince Edwards when you can take a 19-year-old Bosnian that is still raw? I am not here to denigrate the NBA though (it does a fine job of that on its own). I am here to show that Purdue is getting things done by showing a cohesiveness that is rarely seen in college basketball anymore.

It starts with experience. Purdue lost a first round draft pick in Caleb Swanigan, but is somehow playing better. Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, P.J. Thompson, and Dakota Mathias have played 122 games together (plus 11 more with the World University Games this past summer. That is a lot of time on the basketball court together for four guys that were already pretty good. They have won a lot, too. Their collective record in that time is now 90-32. Over the past two seasons it is an even better 43-10.

All of these guys are good, but when you put them together they fit together seamlessly. Just look at last night. All four had key roles in a huge road victory. Mathias did the first half heavy lifting as Purdue built a 14 point lead and made sure the Wolverines were playing catch-up most of the night. Haas was the big man that all teams have to plan around. Even if his defensive weakness is exploited the most by a team like Michigan he still was a force on the offensive end and the guy we went to with the game on the line. Thompson was his usual quiet, but solid self. In 28 minutes he had just six points, but they came on two huge three-pointers that gave Purdue much needed breathing room early in the second half. Finally, Edwards had a bit of an off night, but still chipped in a 10-5-5 that including the game-tying three-pointer with 2:33 left.

This is before you get into how well these guys defend. They are not strictly offensive-minded players. Purdue is 10th in the nation for adjusted defense on KenPom. In scoring defense it is 23rd at 63.6 points per game. That makes games a lot easier to win when you know you only need to get to 70 and you have a team more than capable of getting there even on an off offensive night.

The four seniors combine for about 30 minutes each per game. Haas is a little lower at 21.9 mpg, but he is extremely effective in said minutes. By the time their careers are over three of them (Haas, Mathias, and Edwards) will reach 1,000 career points and finish in the top 50 all-time for the school. Edwards is already 24th at 1,376 and has an outside shot at the top 10 (Keith Edmondson at 1,717). Thompson probably won’t join them as a 4th (he has 689 and would need to average 14.13 per game if Purdue played the maximum 22 remaining games), but he is still the savvy point guard and senior leader that does not mess up, can ice games at the line, and he is shooting 50.7% from three. That means he’ll nail the wide open looks he gets because of everyone else.

With those four Purdue is very good, but we’re so much more. The fifth starter is Carsen Edwards, an instant offense guard that leads the team in scoring and is the first bona fide Red Button since the original, E’twaun Moore. Edwards already has 664 points in his career and has increased his scoring to almost 17 per game. He’s also already fearless. Look at last night. He hit a jumper at the 4:19 mark and a difficult three at the 3:38 mark for five critical points when Purdue could not get a stop. This was after his three at the 6:08 mark put Purdue in front 61-58. The Wolverines then went three straight possessions with a made three between 5:24 and 4:01 that would have buried another team, but not Purdue. This was thanks to Edwards.

Together this group forms one of the most cohesive starting fives in America. We have three shooters shooting better than 40% from three, a slashing guard that can also shoot (37% from three for Carsen), and a 7’2” 300 pound center that cannot be defended one on one. How do you stop this group offensively? Oh, and they can defend like demons too.

Then you go to the bench. Purdue generally only goes about 3-4 players deep into the bench and often doesn’t get a ton of statistical production. Last night the bench only got four points, but it did so much more. Nojel Eastern, the freshman, played big and got two absolutely huge offensive rebounds he converted to four points at a time when Purdue’s offense was struggling. He finished with five rebounds total. Matt Haarms is another giant we can throw at teams with the added bonus of better defense than Haas. His offensive game is still developing, but when he had to shoot a three late in the shot clock with the game tied at 69 you at least thought it had a chance. I don’t know if I have seen Haas take a shot outside of 10 feet from the basket (aside from free throws) in his entire Purdue career and I kind of shudder at the thought of it.

Ryan Cline again had an off night, but in him you have a junior that has played a lot of basketball here and is comfortable with his role. That role happens to be “come in and shoot open threes”. His percentage is down this year, but you know he has a 5 of 7 from three for 20 points game in him some time this season. He was just 4 of 6 against Rutgers. Finally, you have Grady Eifert. If Mackey Arena itself berthed a generic college basketball walk-on it would be Eifert, the tough as nails brother of an NFL tight end that played only 7 minutes last night, but grabbed four rebounds including three on one play that set up a big triple from Mathias. He is not blessed with the talent of most guys int he Big Ten, but he is going to scrap and claw his way into what he gets, just like any Purdue player should.

The bench guys only scored 4 points last night, but contributed 10 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, and two steals. They know their jobs and fill them well. Throw in Jacquil Taylor, who can give you 5-7 emergency big minutes in a pinch, and it is a solid bench. Next season will be a test when all five have to play much larger roles, but this is now.

It is amazing how all nine players had a hand in last night’s game. Cline arguably did the least, but still defended well in iso spots. There may not be a sure fire elite player on the roster, but they are guys that are all at least very good and just happened to mesh together almost perfectly. That’s how you lose a player like Swanigan and still somehow look better. Biggie was an all-time Purdue great. I would love to have him this year. Still, without him Purdue’s offense is more versatile and modern. It relies more on motion and its shooters. Without Biggie everyone knows they have to rebound instead of just saying, “nah, Biggie will get it”. You don’t have the clogged post anymore of Biggie and Haas both on the floor. You also don’t have us forcing it to Biggie in crunch time because we feel we have to. Last night when the game was on the line I honestly didn’t know who I wanted to take the last shot, but in a way, that’s good. ANY of the five guys on the floor were capable of taking it and hitting it, meaning we had a variety of looks. With Biggie, you knew it was probably coming to him, so you could defend it easier.

Overnight I received an e-mail from reader Sam Wehrspann. It read as follows:

What if trades (and values) we’re hypothetically allowed in Big Ten basketball?

Would you trade Cline for McQuaid straight up? What type of futures value could Minny get for Jordan Murphy now that their team is imploding? Would you trade Nojel (and his potential) for Tony Carr and go for broke?

I think this also might help end the ‘ainters argument... Which coaches in the BT would you trade for Painter right now? I think it is a short list. What kind of player value would Painter fetch from the open market?

Some caveats like eligibility remaining and injuries would have to be factored in as well... Would you trade Haarms for an injured Deron Davis?

It is a very interesting scenario. I am not really sure how I would work it out. I like the way this team is structured. Every part seems to fit. Every part seems uniquely Purdue as well. It’s like this roster, in its current form, is an F1 race car. Those cars are relentlessly designed for a specific driver in mind. This team for coach Painter is the result of years of coaching and recruiting. Only he can coach it, too. We have waited for it to bear fruit for some time and there is the looming specter on the horizon that next year, while it could still be a good team, will likely be a step back as the next building phase begins. We know we get at least 15 more games with these guys (13 regular season and one in each postseason tournament), but it is going to be a fun finish.

I am not sure I would trade any parts right now. It’s all just working so well. Even the adversity of two losses in the Bahamas was handled internally by the leadership of four seniors. They are four young men that, as someone said on Twitter last night, don’t have a catchy name like the Baby Boilers or the Three Amigos. They go out and do their jobs together unlike anyone else in college basketball right now. There is still a long way to go and a lot of basketball to be played, (plus my own Purdue fan neuroses to work out), but if they keep it up we might find a name for them after all: