For a long time last night, it looked like the #10 seeded Penn State Nittany Lions were going to pull the upset over #7 Minnesota in the United Center.
They were playing harder. They were attacking. They were holding Amir Coffey in check, and because of this, they were leading at halftime 34-30.
In the first half, Penn State hounded Coffey every time he caught the ball on a dribble hand-off with both the big man and the guard checking him the whole way through. They wouldn’t give him the corner, and so he had to settle for jumpers. He went 1 of 6 in the first half, missing both of his three-point attempts, and didn’t get to the line.
That’s the kind of half Purdue will have to try and force Coffey into if they’re going to take the three-game series between the teams. The Golden Gophers don’t have the shooting to threaten a defense, but Coffey is a one-man wrecking crew, a huge ball-skilled wing that can get to and finish at the rim at will.
He has destroyed Purdue in both games this season, the same way he came alive against Penn State in the second half. He scored 22 points in Mackey, in Purdue’s 10-point victory, but was effective around the rim, making 7 of his 10 2-pointers. He was even better at home, dropping 32 points in the Barn.
After scoring just 2 points in the first half last night, he exploded for 20 in the second and over time. He got to the line 11 times, making ten of them. (Some of these numbers are inflated by being fouled late as Minnesota took over the lead in overtime, but there were also a handful of drives where a lot of contact wasn’t called.)
He never did hit a three in the game, missing 3 more in the second. A jump shooting Coffey, one who settles for pull-ups when the defender sags under a pick and roll and takes away his driving range, is the kind of Coffey that makes the Golden Gophers very beatable.
Amir Coffey has shot reasonably well against Purdue in their two games, especially at home, where he made 3 of his 4 three-point attempts, but he’s still just barely over 30% from there on the season.
But Coffey also got to the line 18 times against Purdue. They had no answer for one of the B10’s best and most exploitative athletes. They’ll need to find one, and it won’t be one person.
Aaron Wheeler has the body and athleticism to be the ideal cover for Coffey, but he’s not there yet on defense. He still gets caught on screens, gets out of position, and relies on his size advantage and hops on defense. That won’t work against someone like Coffey who is quick, long, and merciless when he decides to turn to the basket.
Grady Eifert has the grit to battle Coffey, but if Coffey gets a step on him, he’s gone. That’s part of the answer though, it won’t be just one person. Minnesota will run hand-off pick and roll after pick and roll, they will test and test the defense, and then Coffey will strike.
It will be up to Purdue’s defensive synergy. They have to contain Coffey, right away, by shifting the big man in his way and either switching or trying to hedge and record.
Murphy’s ability to draw a double in the post will test Purdue’s legs and rotation. They can’t leak space in both. Murphy is such a tough draw, and he’ll likely have Haarms on him again. That leaves Purdue’s almost always smaller 4 to guard potential Oturu/Coffey pick and rolls. This is trouble, unless Purdue can be relentless and sharp on switching their pick and rolls.
They can’t let Coffey feast at the free throw line, and they need to make him settle for 3’s. If that means sagging on the pick and roll, fine, but, again, they’ll have to be sharp about it. Sagging can’t lead to giving Coffey a step into his drive and building up his momentum.
Even with Coffey’s play against Purdue, Purdue has the talent edge. They couldn’t have played worse at the Barn, and they were a questionable review call away from having a chance to tie it in the last possession. They took the first half off against Minnesota in Mackey and still won the game by double-digits.
The Golden Gophers don’t have the shooting to consistently threaten Purdue’s defense. What they have is two major mismatches, and it will be up to Coach Painter and Purdue’s rotation to keep them from wreaking havoc.
If they do, Purdue will likely get a chance to avenge another loss in the regular season against Michigan.