Purdue basketball has an identity problem.
They look like a team that is struggling with the complex and often spiraling difficulty of figuring out who they are, on the fly, while being rained down upon by 3 after 3.
For the longest time, Purdue has been known for tough, man to man defense. They defend you, for the full 94 feet of the court. They get into you. Chris Kramer’s go to Purdue. Rapheal Davis’ go to Purdue. A. J. Hammons go to Purdue.
They usually lack the athleticism you’d think of as a great defensive team, but make up for it with having five guys on the floor with the same mindset: we will not make this easy. This cohesion of heart is what made Purdue teams so tough. They don’t get blown out. For the most part, big stars don’t go off. Coach Painter’s staff has always put gameplans around the numbers. These are the best guys, this is where they like to be, and if this team is going to beat us, it’s going to be someone else doing something they’re usually not good at it.
It usually works. It’s not this year.
Purdue is 6-5 now, having lost 5 of those games in their last 7. While their offense has struggled at times outside of Carsen Edwards being incredible (in spite of turnovers and inefficiencies) it is still firmly in the top 10 in the country according to KenPom. It’s their defense that has steadily fallen as the season has progressed down to 66th best in the country.
Purdue’s team on paper should be a defensive team. Matt Haarms is heralded as a 7’3” quick-footed center whose main contributions have been on the defensive end, but his production and play hasn’t so much plataeued as fallen off completely. He’s chasing blocks, getting out of position, and getting pushed around all over the court.
Aaron Wheeler is as athletic a player Purdue has ever had. Has had as many good moments as anyone not named Carsen Edwards on the team, but his position still isn’t clear and Coach Painter has still struggled to find enough minutes for him regularly.
Grady Eifert is on the floor for defense. His hustle is there. He’s generally in the right place at the right time, he’s just too small and not athletic enough to guard most of the guys he’s asked to guard starting at the 4. Same problem with Evan Boudreaux, who is the best option at center on offense (despite not having made a three in a month) but is too small in the post and not quick enough to guard 4’s.
Carsen Edwards defense at times, in fact, most of the times this season, has been laughable. Ryan Cline still has the same problems he’s always had on defense, he’s not quick enough, and though he improved tremendously last year, his extra effort needed on offense has seemed to take away a bit of his ability to get back on defense at the other end.
Sasha Stefanovic might be Painter’s second most consistent defender. A revelation that is shocking, and if this season had churned out a few more wins, one that would be said in celebration. Instead, it reads as a ‘something has gone horribly wrong’ type of story. But the redshirt freshman is busting his ass to keep with his guys off the ball. He rotates correctly and quickly, and is bigger than most guards.
But Purdue has one real defensive star, Nojel Eastern, and to be frank, I fear the hell out of what Purdue’s defense would look like without him. He’s second to Haarms in moments of rim protection on the season and the man’s guarding point guards. For stretches, he looks like the guy that cares the most on the court.
But that’s the thing. While offense can be carried by one guy, defense never will. Purdue is over rotating on defense, giving easy looks up off the ball. Or, in the case of Edwards, just standing too far off his guy and not getting back to him. Purdue is giving up 38% shooting from 3 on the season, that’s the 308th worst percentage in the country. Teams are scoring 40% of their points from the perimeter against them, a top-15 mark in a place you don’t want to be anywhere close to the top-100.
Purdue over rotates one possession, helping too eagerly without any of the behind the ball rotation that Coach Painter teams usually excel at. And the next possession they leave their man on an island and that man gets beat way too easily off the dribble and there’s no one to meet them at the rim.
But Coach Painter, if we’re being honest, has done better with worse. “You have to get over yourself,” he told the media after the Notre Dame loss. You can tell he’s frustrated with his players. He knows they’re capable of more and defense is largely a mindset. They have to want it more, every possession.
There is a Boilermaker team still lurking in Mackey Arena. They showed it against Maryland, locking down a dangerous collection of guards and a dominant big man. They played every possession hard, guarded and rotated and trusted each other. They’ll have to find that again and soon.
They’ve given up all the open looks they can. If they don’t start now, they won’t be giving up any points in March. They’ll be staying home.