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Purdue Basketball: Full Tilt, The Carsen Experience

Purdue are winners of 11 of their last 12 despite their star guard’s struggles.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On December 9th, the Purdue basketball team traveled to Austin to take on Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns reeling. They were in the middle of their toughest stretch of games on the schedule and they were starting to pile up the losses.

Virginia Tech came back in the second half to beat Purdue in the Charleston Classic Championship. Purdue flat out gave away what would have been a marquee win on the road against Florida St.. Michigan made it very clear that they were the best team in the Big Ten and Purdue wasn’t even on their level.

But Purdue had one of the best players in the country in Carsen Edwards, who was exploding for points on a nightly basis, and he was headed to his home state where he ended up making one hell of a statement on his return. He scored an incredible 40 points, making 7 of 14 three-pointers, 8 of 12 shots inside the arc, all three of his free throws, and only turned the ball over once.

That kind of stat line is usually a highlight of a National Player of the Year candidate, a point to call back on to say, this, this right here is the best player in the country.

For Edwards and the Boilers, it was a 4-point loss, a game that showed that no matter how good Edwards was, he wasn’t going to be able to do it all on his own. The Boilers had just 6 assists that game, 3 from Cline and 3 from Edwards, and the only other player to score in double-figures was Matt Haarms.

For as much as 40 points is an incredible mark, especially with that efficiency, it was a game that displayed Edwards tendency to play at or near tilt. He only has one gear at times, and his relentlessness on offense is both one of his best gifts and biggest curses.

The Boilermakers would go on to lose their next game to Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic six days later. At this point, the Boilermakers who started the year garnering respect and a top-25 ranking solely on the back of Edwards’ reputation, were out of the top-25, and out of the NCAA tournament field.

Even after a nice win against a ranked Iowa team at home, Purdue traveled to East Lansing desperate for the signature road win that had eluded them to that point. Michigan St. thumped them, 77-59 ,stifling Purdue’s best player into a 3 of 16 shooting performance.

Carsen’s struggles were a sign of things to come as Purdue got into Big Ten play.

Sitting at 9-6, with two conference losses thanks to both Michigan teams, the Boilermakers started the new year with no hopes to win the B10 and needing a big run in conference play to go dancing in March again.

So how did we get here? Purdue is sitting at 20-7 and tied on top of the B10 with Michigan St..

The easy narrative, the expected story, would be that Carsen Edwards put the team on his back and carried him here, but astoundingly, the opposite has been true.

First 14 games: 25.5 ppg (44%), 53-135 3 pointers (39%), 19.4 shots per game

Last 13 games: 21.2 ppg (.345%), 41-137 3 pointers (.299%), 19.4 shots per game

The turnaround has almost nothing to do with Carsen playing better. In fact, the National Player of the Year candidate has safely played his way out of contention for an award he was a finalist for last year. It would also be criminal at this point to award him the B10 Player of the Year Award.

Carsen Edwards sits at 514 field goals attempted, and is on pace to blow by DJ Newbill’s mark of 540 attempts, the most shots in the B10 since 2007-08, when Newbill finished the year shooting 45%. Edwards field goal percentage right now is .391%.

His percentages across the board have plummeted dramatically in the second half of the season. He was hovering just under 50% with shots inside the arc through his first 14 games and just under 40% from 3, remarkable accuracy for someone who takes so many shots, a lot with high degrees of difficulty.

Those shots, and the opponents, have caught up to Edwards though.

He’s shot 41-107 inside the arc in his last 13 games (.385%) and fallen under 30% from three (41-137).

Which means what made Edwards most valuable has now become his biggest detriment. He takes a lot of shots, a lot of shots, his %shots is the 6th highest in the country and by far the highest in the B10, which is fine when he’s making them, but for the last 13 games has mostly meant one thing: Purdue has had a lot of possessions that end in a miss.

There’s no gentle way to say. Carsen Edwards has been bad, playing on full tilt, ignoring the fact that the alarm is going off and the electric has been cut, and he keeps chucking.

He’s been in a particular funk of late, one he’s seemed determined to get over one difficult, contested jump shot at a time.

Against Indiana on the road, Carsen took 24 shots and made just four of them, none of them jump shots, including an end of the game semi-ill-advised pull up with seconds still left on the clock that Haarms was luckily able to tip-in to give Purdue a big road win. He missed all 10 of his three-point attempts. It wasn’t that Carsen’s shot was off that was alarming, it was that it was so off, and his answer was to take even tougher shots. Carsen would end the game with a season-low 9 points, the only time he’s been held to single-digits this season.

His follow up performance on the road against Nebraska wasn’t much better. He’d take 10 threes again, this time making one, and again in a late-game situation he forced up a shot that was blocked. Grady Eifert was there this time to bail the junior guard out with an offensive put-back.

Which has been the theme for Purdue over the last 12 games, 11 of them wins, including road wins in Madison, Columbus, and Assembly Hall, and even bigger wins in Mackey where Purdue hasn’t lost this year. Despite Purdue’s best player struggling, the pieces around him have all found a rhythm together, found some defense, and hit timely shots to put Purdue back into the NCAA tournament and on top of the Big Ten standings.

Ryan Cline has been the steady hand next to Carsen all season, the only other consistent scoring threat, and one of the country’s best shooters. While Edwards has struggled to find his stroke in conference play, Cline is hitting 45% of his 104 attempts in Big Ten play.

Nojel Eastern has unleasheed himself as a double-double machine. He’s taking advantage of his size more and more, grabbing rebounds, getting to the free throw line, and actually making them. In the first 14 games of the season Eastern was averaging just over 4 points a game. In the last 13, he’s scored over 8 a game.

And then there’s Grady Eifert, whose efforts won’t ever show up on the stat sheet, though he’s had a similar expansion to his scoring output. He’s averaging nearly three points more a game in the last 13 games then the first 14, while becoming one of the nation’s most efficient offensive players. He’s making 40% of his threes, rebounding nearly 10% of Purdue’s misses on offense when he’s on the floor, not turning the ball over, and defending multiple positions at a high-level.

And then there’s Matt Haarms. Mr. F!$% You, himself. Quietly, he’s turned a somewhat uneven start to the season into an All-B10 performance. He’s been phenomonal for the last two months, and probably Purdue’s best player the last month. He’s blocking more shots than ever, his block percentage has raised to 12.5%, the 8th highest mark in the country. He’s grabbing over 9% of Purdue’s misses on offense, and rebounding the ball defensively with more urgency, going over the 20% defensive rebound mark for the first time in his career. He’s scoring the ball, and doing it efficiently. He’s now 80-120 inside the arc for the season.

He’s been a more reliable barometer for the team’s performance than anyone, maybe its most important offensive cog. His ability to screen and dive to the hoop opens up easy looks for himself and others.

And here’s where it gets complicated. There’s a certain way that Edwards plays, an inevitability to his game when the ball is in his hands, a tenacity to his intent. He is going to get shots up. He is going to attack. The Boilers know it, and as Coach Painter said after the IU game, that’s his guy. The opponents know it, too.

It makes no sense that a team thought to largely rely on just one guy, could blast off while that one players has the toughest stretch of his career. But gravity is not just something that holds you to the ground, it is something very real on a basketball court, too. There’s no advanced metric to properly show it, but the amount of attention Edwards garners makes everyone else’s jobs easier on the court. He creates open looks, offensive rebounds, and makes other teams work constantly.

At the beginning of the year it looked like he might have to strap this team to his back and do it all, but the first 14 games proved that wasn’t viable. And the last 13 games has proven he doesn’t need to.

This is the last step in the maturation process of a star, making others around you shine. He’s done it indirectly, as a result of who he is as a player, now it’s time for Edwards to do it with purpose.

Sometimes the hardest thing for the best player on the court to do is realize he’s not the best option on every play.