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Penn State at Purdue Preview

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Purdue looks to stretch their win streak to 4, and it’s going to come down to the 4’s.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Penn State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

16-78

or 20.5%

or enter your favorite gif of a garbage fire.

Those are the combined three-point shooting stats for Aaron Wheeler and Evan Boudreaux, Coach Painter’s two ‘4’s going into their home game against Michigan State. Throw a rock between the words disaster and why Purdue lost, and you’re more likely to hit appropriate words than Wheeler and E-Bo were able to hit jump shots.

Purdue’s offense was crumbling. It fell out of the top 70 efficiency in KenPom, an unheard of struggle for one of the best offensive systems in the country. (They were 2nd last year!)

While there was struggles all over the roster - especially with shooting on the road - it was this complete loss at four which crippled Purdue’s offense.

Aaron Wheeler was supposed to be Purdue’s breakout candidate. He’s a 6’9 junior with trampoline legs, long arms, and the kind of tempting athleticism that made him an obvious case to put it all together and into the starting lineup. He was a 36% three-point shooter last season, coming off the bench for an offense that only needed him to stand in the corner and shoot open threes.

He has shown minimal skills growth. He still can’t dribble. Still can’t get his own shots or to the bucket. Still doesn’t create for others. Which would have been fine - his athleticism, size, and athleticism makes him a mismatch on defense, and he has the ability to be a great rebounder.

But he started the season on a cold streak, and then found ice, and then located himself into a 15-65 tundra.

E-Bo is an athletically challenged high-worker, who bangs and works hard, and came to Purdue last year with the resume of being a decent shooter. He made 1 of his first 13 three-point attempts.

Combined, in the first 16 games, the two went 16-78. 20.5%.. Neither player offers much more on the offensive end, meaning Coach Painter’s squads were playing 4 on 5 on offense, or worse, 3 on 5 when Eastern was also on the floor. After the loss in double overtime to Michigan where Wheeler and Boudreaux combined to score 4 points, the Boilermakers were 9-7 and reeling. They were a bubble tournament team at best, and the rest of their schedule looked full of B10 teams capable of knocking them all the way out of the picture.

Then Purdue returned to Mackey Arena and blew the Spartans out of the water 71-42.

Evan Boudreaux knocked down 3 of 5 threes and scored 11 points.

Then Purdue crushed Wisconsin at home. Then Iowa, where Boudreaux again got hot and knocked down 4 threes on his way to scoring a career-high at Purdue 18 points. But tucked behind the big point explosion, was a small number 1, on two attempts. Wheeler saw one go in, finally, and it carried over.

Aaron Wheeler went into Bloomington, and helped Purdue blow out their in-state rivals for their fourth straight win in Assembly Hall. Wheeler made all 3 of his three-point attempts (2 in the first half, one early in the second) and more impressively, didn’t force a bad shot the rest of the game.

This trend has sparked a three-game winning streak, quality wins that will help Purdue get into the tournament and fight up the seeding board, and pushed Purdue’s offense back into the top-40 in efficiency.

Since that Michigan St. game, Wheeler and E-Bo have combined to go 15-37(40%) from three.

While everyone has shot better during this stretch, Purdue needs Wheeler and E-bo to be net positives, or at least helpful on offense. That allows Painter to keep Eastern on the floor and provides his big men the space inside. Purdue’s offensive talent is skewed in a way that it can’t make up for offensive negatives. They get open looks off one of the best designed offenses, but they just weren’t making wide open looks.

Now they are.

This couldn’t be more important than tonight, where Purdue will need shooting everywhere to go up against a disruptive Penn State squad, with the kind of do everything 4 in Lamar Stevens that will necessitate Purdue’s best defender Nojel Eastern to stay on the floor as much as possible. Something that doesn’t work when there isn’t shooting surrounding him. (Hopefully rumors that Eastern is suffering from an illness that’s putting his status in tonight’s game in jeopardy.) Purdue’s one advantage against Penn St. is they have the kind of defender who can give Stevens a fit, long enough to challenge his mid-range shooting, and athletic enough to stop Stevens from drawing havoc at the rim.

Penn State is an interesting concept as a team. Statistically they are an elite defensive team by forcing tough shots, playing hard at all times, and getting after teams. Purdue has struggled against such squads.

The two teams are incredibly similar in advanced metrics. Purdue’s the 38th best offensive team in the nation, Penn St. is 34th. Purdue is the the 12th best defense according to KenPom, Penn St. is the 16th.

Lamar Stevens is the engine of a Nittany Lions team now in the top-15 nationally, but they have a lot of problems.

Mike Watkins, in his 15th season at PSU, is as big a body as their is in college football. He can bully Haarms and his length can bother Trevion Williams in the post.

Myreon Jones has been great. The 6’3” guard is hitting over 40% of his threes, doesn’t turn the ball over, and creates for his teammates. He’ll be vying for an All-Big Ten selection and rightfully slow. Eric Hunter Jr. has been one of the best defenders in the conference, and he’s been able to really shut down shooters by hounding the dribble and operating with great balance. He doesn’t get blown by and he doesn’t let guards get comfortable.

Penn State’s top three probably edges Purdue - this squad has quietly been doing this for a long time, getting better each year with a roster getting more and more dynamic - but Purdue’s depth has been the difference in their wins this year. If Purdue wins at home, it will be by winning the margins.

Stefanovic will need to stay hot. So will Wheeler and Boudreaux. Thompson has had some brilliant moments as an instant scorer off the bench. They’ll need to work hard to get clean looks, and then knock them down.

Penn State is having a program changing season. They’re new to success. They’ve won the last 6 games including road games against both Michigan teams. They’re just a game back of Maryland and tied with Illinois for second. This is a defining game for the Nittany Lions. Will they reach the summit of the Big Ten conference after years in the basement?

If so, they need to win tonight, on the road, against a Boilermaker squad that doesn’t lose in Mackey.

For Purdue, a three game winning streak has brought their post season hopes back alive. A win tonight, and that spark becomes a fire.

Mackey Arena will play host tonight at 6:30.