As we end January Purdue is sitting at 18-3 overall. It will be in the top 5 when today’s AP Poll comes out. After a pair of Tier 1 NET wins last week and some losses elsewhere it is likely that many bracketologists will move the Boilers back onto the 1 seed line. We’re at the halfway point of the Big Ten season and not where we want to be thanks to a pair of last second road losses to inferior teams, but when you begin to look at March, Purdue is sitting in a very good position with 10 games to go.
All the goals are still there. If Purdue wins its final 10 games it will have at least a share of the Big Ten championship, as it would mean wins over Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State who are a game ahead in the loss column. There are also plenty of chances to get help where even 8-2 would be enough, as Wisconsin still has to go to Michigan State, Illinois, and Indiana while hosting Purdue. Illinois still has to go to Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan while hosting Ohio State. Michigan State probably has it the easiest with the toughest remaining games coming at Iowa and Ohio State, while hosting Purdue, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
There is a lot of basketball to be played. I think 8-2 might be enough, and that means holding serve at home, winning two games we should win at Minnesota and Northwestern, and getting at least one at Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. There is zero doubt in my mind that Purdue is good enough to win each remaining game individually.
But man, this team is not one for the weak of heart.
Thanks to growing anxiety that cropped up over the summer, which was then sent into overdrive by my family’s car accident coming home from the Bucket game, I had already been having a hard time at the end of games with my heart racing and hands shaking. Purdue is certainly not making things easier on itself, either. The first seven games of the season were relatively easy. Purdue absolutely crushed its opponents in buy games, was firmly in control against North Carolina and Florida State, and in the closest game, against Villanova, it dropped the hammer in the last 4:30, breaking out from a 62-62 tie with 4:33 left to eventually pull ahead by 10 with just under a minute to play and cruise the rest of the way, hitting 6 of 7 free throws in the final minute to ice it.
The Florida State game was probably the peak so far in terms of Purdue playing its best basketball. The Seminoles are a good team. They are athletic and they employed the type of press trapping defense that normally gives us fits. Purdue vaporized the press on its way to a 28-point win and looked invincible.
Since then, however, Purdue has played 14 games, and eight of them have been cardiac events in the final minutes:
December 4 vs. Iowa – This game was supposed to be the coronation, as a win meant the first No. 1 ranking in school history. Purdue got it, but not until it nearly blew a 19 point lead with just under 10 minutes left. The Hawkeyes managed to get the lead to two with 2:33 left, but Purdue finally tightened things up, scored the last five points, and got the win. The game in Iowa City would be somewhat similar, but Purdue had an answer for each run and kept them at bay, as Iowa only got within 4 once in the second half and no closer. Key issue: 17 turnovers, mostly from the Iowa press.
December 9 at Rutgers – The first game as a No. 1 ranked team sucked, as Ron Harper Jr. basically won the game twice. He scored with 13 seconds left, then after Trevion Williams appeared to win it with just under 5 seconds left, he threw in a half court heave at the buzzer for the win. Lost in all this, Purdue led by 6 with 3:29 left and had a 1 point lead with the ball with 20 seconds left when Jaden Ivey was forced into a turnover. Key Issue: Couldn’t stop Harper, who had 30 and was glowing white hot at the end. Purdue still wins if not for a miracle heave.
December 12 vs. NC State – For most of the game Purdue was awful, It had only 46 points and trailed by 12 with 6 minutes left, looking dead in the water. The Boilers mounted a furious comeback though, outscoring the Wolfpack 36-14 in the final 6 minutes of regulation and overtime to get a 10 point win. Considering how poorly NC State has been most of the year, it was a great escape. Key Issue: Shot only 23% from three, 14 turnovers.
January 4 vs. Wisconsin – Any loss at home for Purdue feels shocking. When the Badgers got just their fifth win ever over Purdue in Mackey it is even more of a stunner. Johnny Davis tied it at the line with 3:41 left coming out of the media timeout. He then proceeded to put Purdue away with seven more points and a huge assist on a Brad Davison three the rest of the way. I felt Purdue struggled with Wisconsin because the Badgers were physical, but the Boilers got too focused on the post and trying to foul out their bigs, thus stagnating the offense. Also, Davis was very good. Key Issue: Davis had 37 points and there was no way we could stop him.
January 8 at Penn State – The officials decided early on that Zach Edey was not going to be allowed to participate, as he had four fouls in nine minutes and apparently John Harrar was an all-Big Ten caliber player that needed protection. Purdue never really put the Nittany Lions away, and they got hot from three late. A 13 point lead with 12 minutes left was erased in roughly eight minutes, as Greg Lee’s three with 3:48 left gave Penn State a one point lead and the fan at the Bryce Jordan Mausoleum was going nuts. Fortunately, Purdue had an answer. Trevion Williams scored on the next possession and Mason Gillis hit a big three after a stop. Penn State missed a go ahead three with 1:32 left and Purdue managed to score the last five, but it was far too close: Key Issue: Penn State hit 7 threes in the final 12 minutes.
December 17 at Illinois – On paper this is a great, great win as the Boilers gutted it out in double OT on the road over a very good Illini team playing at full strength for the first time in a while with Andre Curbello. Unfortunately, it is another game where Purdue let a late lead slip. The Boilers led 67-60 with two minutes left, and even 69-63 with 74 seconds remaining. The Illinois guards dominated the final 74 seconds of regulation and hit big shot after big shot both then and in the first minute of overtime. Two great playcalls in the second OT led to Eric Hunter Jr. layups and Sashsa Stefanovic hit a huge three, but Ivey missed a one-and one with 26 seconds left in regulation and Purdue leading by 2. Purdue won, but it had to work a lot harder than it should have. Key Issue: Purdue was 26 of 32 from the line, but had big misses late.
January 20 at Indiana – Purdue started strong at 16-8 and got two fouls on Trayce Jackson-Davis in the first eight minutes. It then pretty much took the rest of the first half off as Rob Phinisee got hot and Purdue looked like it forgot how to play basketball. Ivey and Williams were awful and the Hoosiers led by nine at the half. Ivey was brilliant in the second half and Purdue had every opportunity to put them away after he tied it with 3:38 left. The Hoosiers would go almost three and a half minutes without scoring from there before Phinisee’s game-winner, but Purdue would go miss, miss, Mason Gillis layup for the lead, miss, miss, miss on its last possessions. It ended up being one of the worst games of Tre’s career, as he was 1 of 4 with 4 turnovers and never got in a rhythm. Key Issue: Purdue was 7 of 17 from the line and Tre was awful, but still wins if it gets a defensive rebound with 23 seconds left.
January 30 vs. Ohio State – Just yesterday, but Purdue led by 20 with 14 minutes left and 11 with 2:13 left when Ivey fouled Malaki Branham on a three. That’s when the Buckeyes started throwing everything in the basket, including a pair of E.J. Liddell threes in the final 26 seconds. Ivey saved the day with his game winner, but again, Purdue had to work a lot harder than it should have. If you have an 8-point lead and the ball with 2:13 left there is no valid excuse to shoot with more than 5 seconds left on the shot clock unless it is a wide open dunk. A short jumper by Gillis with 1:58 left was early in the clock. Ivey had a layup roll just barely off the rim with 1:25 left, then turned it over after Gillis got the rebound. Thankfully, Gillis got another offensive rebound with 42 seconds left and hit two free throws, but Liddell got two open looks and a bad turnover after the first one meant six points in nine seconds. Key Issue: 15 of 26 at the line, at home, no less.
So where does that put us? This is the stretch of the season that will define things. A Big Ten title and No. 1 seed is there for the taking, but Purdue has not been at its best for a while. It has been mostly good enough, but in two of the three losses it got burned by an inferior teams and against NC State, Illinois, Penn State, and Ohio State it was damn lucky to pull it out (NC State especially). An optimistic view is that this team is learning from adversity and figuring out how to play under pressure. A pessimistic view is that this team is playing with fire and it could get burned at the worst time in North Texas fashion because it is not putting teams away that it should. Here is what we’re seeing:
Defense – The good news is that Purdue is No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offense. That’s great. When the offense gets cranked up Purdue is nearly unstoppable. Zach Edey and Trevion Williams cannot be guarded one-on-one and four guys (Ivey, Sasha, Gillis, and Thompson) are shooting over 40% from three with at least 40 attempts. When things are rolling, either Williams/Edey are going to score one-on-one, or they are kick out of a double to a wide open shooter that can knock it down. Defensively, Purdue is 90th nationally on KenPom in adjusted defense, by far the worst of any team in the overall top 20. When ht e offense is fully rolling the defense is good enough, but there is not a lot of confidence right now when we need that one key stop.
Free Throws – Purdue is 70% from the line on the year as a team. That is 11th in the Big Ten and 207th nationally. In conference only games Purdue is last in the league at 65.6%. The last few games have been especially dreadful, as Purdue was 57.7% against Ohio State, 45.5% against Iowa, and 41.2% against Indiana. In the other two losses it was 62.5% against Wisconsin and 68.8% against Rutgers. Individually, Purdue has good free throw shooters. Brandon Newman, Gillis, Thompson, and Stefanovic are above 85%. Edey and Ivey are getting to the line the most, however, and are 136 of 202. Edey in particular has struggled of late, missing five each against Ohio State, Indiana, and Nebraska. Sometimes these things go in ebbs and flows. Right now the team is at an ebb. It needs to consistently get back over 70% in games, and 75% would be a lot better. Trevion Williams is at least shooting the best of his career at 54%, but he is only 3 of his last 12.
Trevion Williams - Tre is in a slump right now. We all know it. Let’s just say it. He has not been good the last five games, and was especially bad against Illinois and Indiana. If Purdue can win while he is struggling that is a good thing, because he is not going to struggle forever. Just look at NC State, where he had a 22-12-9 and pretty much single-handedly brought us back. He did have a 12-10-5 against Iowa, but he needs to get back on track and play like we know he is capable. He’ll get there. I predict at least two 24-14-7 type games coming up, one against a big opponent. He seems to like doing that to Izzo & Co. too. If you get good Tre combined with great Ivey Purdue is going to beat pretty much anyone.
Turnovers – We all know Purdue has struggled mightily with a press under Painter. Lately things have been better, but no team is perfect and sometimes problems rear their head at the worst time. Against Rutgers and Ohio State, Purdue had massive turnovers when it just needed to inbound the ball and get to the line (where I know free throws have been dicey, but at least it is better than turning it over). Teams know Purdue in this league. They know Purdue can get flustered vs. a press and it can be shaky at the line. We’re going to be in this position at least half a dozen more times this year. If anything, Purdue has done better when trailing late than when leading, but when it is trailing it doesn’t have to worry about the press or free throws.
Painter’s late game calls – I am a staunch Painter defender, but sometimes his late game calls are baffling. At the end of regulation and in the first OT Purdue did not get off good final possession shots against Illinois. Ivey’s shots were forced late against IU. Yesterday was a disaster of a final play until Ivey hit a challenged three while falling down, which you can never rely on. Painter has had good moments. The above mentioned baskets by Hunter in the second OT were beautiful, as was Tre’s near game-winner at Rutgers. Still, he can be shaky as well. Even then, he is not the one actually making the plays. I still will take him over most any coach in America because of the overall game prep and what Purdue does in those first 30-35 minutes, but I admit I am nervous in tight games late.
This season can still be a very special one. We knew a Big Ten title, 1 seed, and Final Four were the goals from day one and with 10 days left all of that is very much achievable. Still, here is plenty to work on. As much as we would like Purdue to go out and just crush teams by double-digits, that is not sustainable. We’ve got 10 games left. Purdue should take care of business without too much trouble in four of them (at Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers, and at Northwestern), at least on paper. It will also be favored at home against Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, and probably a slight favorite at Michigan. We saw flashes yesterday of when this team puts it all together for long stretches. It can be transcendent. Then the last 3 minutes happened and it can be a disaster. This team’s ceiling is still higher than pretty much anyone else in the country.
The issues are fixable. We have seen time and again Purdue get better during this exact stretch and play its best basketball. We can see it again, and that means a 1 seed. That comes with its own gifts of close games to campus (and getting that Indy-Chicago path in the regional would be sweet), a 1/16 game that should be easy barring an absolute nightmare, and being at least 3 seeds higher than your opponent in the first three games. Purdue is good enough that it can survive one of these major issues against pretty much any team in America, but when two or three crop up at the same time, watch out.
Purdue is still in a position that 350 or so teams would absolutely love to be in right now, and that is a good thing. The only other time we have been here under Painter was 2018, and I think that team played tighter than this one. The longer that win streak went on I think it began to weigh on them, and that team didn’t have as many challenges as this one has. That can be beneficial this year.
It’s time to deliver, but strap in. It could be rough. This team might kill me, but as long as that death happens in New Orleans I am cool with it.