The ‘Keys to the Game’ returns for the second year as the Purdue Boilermakers near the official start of the 2023-2024 season. One of the most anticipated seasons in program history, the Boilermakers will look to break an ominous streak of flame outs in the NCAA Tourney and will start with their final exhibition at Mackey Arena against Grace College.
Grace College is one of the premier NAIA programs over the last decade, having found success under Head Coach Scott Moore in that time frame. Moore led the Lancers to one of their best seasons in program history last year going 31-4 and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NAIA Tourney, the deepest run in program history during the NAIA single-division format. The program features a number of former high school players from Indiana with twelve of the fourteen players being from the Hoosier state. The team features former Blackhawk Christian teammates of the Furst brothers in Gage Sefton and Marcus Davidson.
With the exhibition not providing much of an ability to see what Grace does well, today’s keys will be more of a ‘what to look for’ heading into the season opener against Samford. With that said, let’s get into it!
1 | How Well Does Zach Edey Defend Smaller/Quicker Players
This might be at the forefront most of the season but most notably once the Boilers get into the NCAA Tourney. Edey is as good of a rim protector as the college game has seen in the last several years. His presence alone at 7’4, paired with his athleticism at that height, dissuades a lot of attempts from within five to seven feet of the rim. How do teams combat that? They pull the big man out beyond the arc and try to put him in space. So how well has he done in the off season to improve that liability last season and how has Purdue altered their scheme to help him out more?
Zach will likely defend most of those high ball screens by dropping into coverage around the free throw line and cutting off lanes to the rim as much as possible. Purdue is going to allow players to come off those screens to take contested jumpers all day as those are the lowest percentage shot in basketball right now at the college level. That means those on ball defenders (like Jones, Smith, Morton, Colvin, and Loyer) are going to have to fight to stay high through the screens and get through to challenge pull up three pointers.
The improvement may not necessarily come from Zach alone as Purdue being older, wiser, and simply more athletically gifted behind him with players like Furst, Colvin, Heide, Waddell, and Gillis allow Zach to take more risks defending those ball screens. Don’t just watch Zach when those high ball screens draw him out. Watch off the ball for the backside and ball side help to determine how well Purdue is communicating on defense when they get into rotations. At times against Arkansas, Purdue was stellar in that regard. At other times, it was not a great effort and at least once on the broadcast you could hear Edey telling guys to communicate better so he could know where he was supposed to be covering in those situations.
2 | Taking Shots Within the Offensive Flow to Limit Runouts & Transition Opportunities
Matt Painter will be the first to say that Purdue still lacks overall athleticism, as compared to those programs at the upper echelon of college basketball. He hasn’t minced those words much over the last five to six words but what he has also done is generate a scheme that doesn’t enhance those flaws. That is, as long as the players aren’t taking out of rhythm shots that leave Purdue is bad positions to recover on the defensive end.
Purdue has as many sets as you could conceivably throw out there in the game of basketball and the players understanding those schemes and knowing how to counter what the defense is doing is incredibly important. If players try to do too much outside of that loose framework (listen, Purdue isn’t a strict adherence to running only what they are told...he allows them to go make plays) that isn’t the correct read, it can lead to transition opportunities for the opposing team. This is no different that in football with a receiver running a bad route, an offensive lineman sliding to the wrong player during a protection scheme, or a running back going to the wrong side for a handoff. It means an opportunity for the defense to make a play.
Purdue should be able to put itself in better positions on offense but often times against Arkansas was too careless with the ball. That led to twenty turnovers and easy buckets for the Razorbacks, which is something Purdue can’t allow to happen. Cut those turnovers in half and Purdue likely wins that game by double figures as they also mean Purdue cut themselves short on points as well.
3 | Simply Put, Purdue Needs to Shoot Better from Three
Purdue has too many good shooters to be in the lower parts of 30% from behind the arc. It simply can’t continue to shoot that poorly and expect to have the season that it should this year. Purdue can easily be a 35% team from behind the arc and at that percentage, with their frontcourt being as deep and talented as any other program in the country, will lead Purdue to another 30+ win season.
Players will need to understand more that passing up good shots often times leads to great shots for other players. Some times, passing up that contested three with 20 seconds on the shot clock may mean an open three for you or another win at 10 seconds or an easy bucket for Edey as he can go solo inside more easily late in the shot clock off ball rotations. Who could stand to take better shots from outside this season? It’s hard to judge based off one exhibition but Mason Gillis seemed to flash an improved confidence in his jump shot, and rightfully so. He can be a 40%+ shooter from three while likely taking four to five per game but they need to be the right kinds of shots taken. The other would be Lance Jones and trying to get his mind wrapped around being the third or fourth scoring threat most times on the floor for the Boilermakers and understanding he won’t be needed to carry the scoring load. That may be a concept he struggles with early on this season but may likely figure out by the time January 1st roles around. He is too good of a player not to get that concept, in my opinion.
This is a game that Purdue shouldn’t struggle with, at all. Given their ability to play a high level opponent just a few days ago, some of those early season kinks were highlighted and then underlined in red. My guess is Coach Painter absolutely loved having that game film this early in the season and Purdue will be better for it not only now, but later on. We just don’t want to see an IU type exhibition struggle for this team because that is going to drudge up a lot of sour feelings from North Texas, St. Peters, and FDU.
Edey will likely get to 15 and 10 rather quickly, as long as his hook shots go in early. Grace’s tallest player is 6’10 Elijah Malone but the next is a 6’7 forward. If Zach gets the ball deep enough he can and should turn and score, even over a double team (which is something I wish he would do more to dissuade the double on his own). The key will be what do the wings and guards look like playing off the big man.
I’m sure Purdue wants to get Colvin, Heide, Waddell, and Jones on the floor as much as possible to let those guys battle it out for playing time at the 2 and 3. Morton will play the role he needs to play and I’m not concerned with his playing time this season. He will be around 20 minutes no matter what because of what he brings to both ends as a senior.
Grace College: 56