I’ve got a riddle for you.
Purdue is number 3 nationally. If the season finished today they would be a shoe-in for a #1 seed in the tournament. They are currently undefeated in B10 play. They have 16 straight wins, which ties the school record for most consecutive wins. According to Kenpom, they have the 3rd best offense in the country and the 7th best defense.
Now, my riddle. What does Purdue do best?
The easy answer, perhaps even the right one, is shooting. The Boilermakers are ranked first by that same Kenpom in 3-point shooting. They have five players that have made more than 30 three-pointers. All five of those players are shooting better than 40%.
But I’m still not sure that shooting alone encapsulates the beauty of Purdue’s offense, which as Michigan players and fans will tell you, is both terrifying and brilliant.
Also, their best offense still might not have anything to do with the new school. Instead, look deep into the post where the 7’2”, 300 lb. senior Isaac Haas is ceiling someone off to touch, with surprising softness, the ball high off the glass and into the net. After a couple quiet games on the road, Isaac Haas ate Mo Wagner alive in Mackey Arena Thursday to the tune of 24 points on just 4 missed shots. Not only is he making a career-high .627% of his shots from the floor, he’s shooting an incredible and breath-taking 77% from the free throw line. This is a problem for teams because he’s the 8th best player in the nation at drawing fouls per 40 minutes according to Kenpom. He is a dinosaur in a new world of tiny, crittering creatures.
Haas smashes are as gentle to college centers as Hulk smashes were to Loki.
But still. This doesn’t feel right. Haas can be fronted. He can be doubled. It’s been done effectively, in the sense that he was held to back to back games of 3 points on the road in Iowa and 2 points at home against Wisconsin.
And yet. Purdue won both of those games by 28 and 23 points, respectively.
And then the answer comes to me. When you hear it, it will seem obvious, as all good riddles do. Purdue’s best at one thing. Passing.
When you say passing, it isn’t just passing. It’s vision and IQ, yes, but it’s also trust. Trust that if the ball swings it will swing back, or further, until the perfect shot is found. This comes with time together. Four of the starters on Purdue are seniors that have played from day one. They know each other as well as they know themselves. They have battled and fought and lost and won, together.
But this disease of precision can be seen most in the sophomore who missiled his way into the starting lineup in the same way he gets to the hoop. But this isn’t the same guard from Texas who would blow up possession with ill-advised drives to the hoop that ended in blocked shots or wildly thrown shots that we saw last year.
Instead, the infection has spread into the one player on the team with the ability to make plays for himself and others every possession. You could see it early in the game, on Purdue’s first basket, when Carsen’s quick step got him past a defender and into two more help defenders. But instead of panicking, he hung in the air, sensed the opening, and fired a pass out to the open Vincent Edwards for a three-pointer. Yes, the shooting was good, but the pass was even better.
Later, Carsen would drive in and find himself similarly surrounded by Michigan defenders. Again, he found Edwards, this time for an out-of-nowhere dump off for a dunk.
In the four games before Michigan, Carsen Edwards committed just 1 turnover. In that time, he assisted on 19 assists. The 1 turnover is important, obviously, but it’s more the mass of assists that speaks to the expansion of his game. In the Michigan game, Carsen turned the ball over 5 times. Games like that will happen with a kid capable of taking over a game. It’s that he still had 3 assists that tells you that he’s seeing the floor, learning his teammates, and trusting in them.
In over 800 minutes last year, Carsen had 62 assists. In just 602 minutes this year, he already has 68.
The youngest and most talented Boilermaker has taken in with the four seniors to find the deathly beauty of their brand of basketball. His ability to break down a defense has added the petrol to a vehicle that already had the engine and frame of a champion.
Now, he also has the vision to see the passing lanes.