Charleston is one of America’s greatest treasures. The city market, the coast line, the charm, the she crab soup, and for this weekend, college basketball. The Charleston Classic will play host to the #24 Purdue Boilermakers.
Despite the early top-25 ranking, Purdue is mostly a team of unknowns. There are a lot of freshman, two redshirts, and a bevy of returning players that will all have to fill new roles. The only consistent is Carsen Edwards, world destroyer, All-American, National Player of the Year candidate, and favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year who is averaging 26.5 points per game after a week of play.
Charleston will be Purdue’s first real test after two convincing victories over Fairfield and Ball State to start the year. Purdue will play three games in four days, and looks to be a lock to take on at least Wichita St. in the second round of the tournament before potentially playing a talented Virginia Tech team for the championship. Whoever they play, they look to answer three important questions.
Can Ryan Cline continue to be this kind of playmaker?
Ryan Cline has always been a good player. He’s always been a good shooter. He’s always been stuck in a reserve role behind really really good guards. It’s now his time, finally, as a senior and we’re seeing things from him that were hard to predict for even the biggest Cline fans (yes, I’m talking about myself.). In the first two games of the season he has recorded a game of 8 assists and 1 turnover against Fairfield, and then collected another 5 assists to just 1 turnover against Ball State.
Cline has never touched the ball this much in Coach Painter’s system. He’s not just a catch and shoot threat anymore. He’s running pick and rolls and coming hard off screens for dribble hand-offs that’s already led to a lot of easy baskets for other players and himself. He’s created great chemistry with Matt Haarms, dumping off two beautiful pocket bounce passes for two thunderous slams to the big man already this year.
It’s a revelation. He’s taken a lot of the pressure off Nojel Eastern who has struggled to initiate a consistent offense. It allows Eastern to be on the block and take advantage of his ridiculous advantage over point guards inside. It’s a big reason why Purdue has rebounded 44.6% of their misses so far this season.
The question is if Cline can continue to be enough of a threat off the dribble to keep the offense rolling when he has to face quicker, more athletic guards. Cline uses his strength, size, shooting, and general craftiness to make room for other players. He’s not blowing by anyone, but he’s smart and led the team last year in assist to turnover ratio last year on a team full of assist to turnover stars. He doesn’t make mistakes. If he can keep making plays for others it will go a long way in taking the attention off of Carsen Edwards.
Can Eastern physically dominate enough to make up for his short comings?
There’s no indication Nojel Eastern can be the focal point of a successful offense. He can’t shoot. He can’t make free throws. He’s struggling to get to the rim, and he’s mostly relied on a long off-hand floater to score. He was brutal the first game of the season against Fairfield. In 23 minutes he went 0-3 from the floor, didn’t get to the line, turned the ball over twice, and only assisted on 1 field goal.
That said, he can still dominate a game. He’s the best defender on the team, and maybe the conference. He can absolutely shut down any guard with his combination of length, quickness, and tenacity. He will be Coach Painter’s fire extinguisher.
Former Purdue transfer target, Tayler Persens, was having himself a game against Purdue. He put up 19 points in the first half. Coach Painter put Nojel Eastern on him for the rest of the game. Persens finished the game with 19 points.
To go with that, Eastern brutalized Ball State on the offensive glass. He grabbed six offensive rebounds, most leading to easy put-backs that got him to 12 efficient points on just seven shots.
This is the value of Eastern, the dirty work and taking advantage of his unusual size and quickness at the 1. The offense has stagnated with him attacking, and the question becomes if Coach Painter can harness Eastern in the right way and if Eastern can be just that dominate against schools with slightly bigger and more athletic guards.
What exactly is Matt Haarms the basketball player?
Offensively, Haarms looks much more aggressive and comfortable on offense this season. He’s attack in post-ups, setting good screens, and rolling hard to the rim. He even hit a three against Ball State!
But he’s still skinny and still over reactive to players around the rim. He chases every block. He gets pushed off the block. He was a great freshman, a surprise player off the bench last year, but defensively, I’m not sure how much higher his ceiling goes. He got a lot better in the second half against Ball State forcing three charges, and Coach Painter will need more of that going forward. Purdue isn’t near the rebounding team they were last year. In certain lineups they’re going to be downright bad. They need Haarms to make securing a rebound a priority over chasing blocks.
But the offensive numbers are encouraging. He’s Purdue’s second-leading scorer as it stands at 12.5 points a game despite playing only 17.5 minutes a game. His hook-shot looks good. He’s always had nice touch around the rim. He’s still struggling around the free throw line and he’ll need to have a Haas like turn around to maximize his ability to threaten a defense.
He’s still a threat rolling to the hoop and on the offensive glass. His versatility to attack anywhere will be vital, especially the post, where Coach Painter has always been great about getting big men clean touches. It’ll be up to Haarms to make the most of them.