There may not be a bigger game this season than the game that is going to be played on Saturday in Indianapolis between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Arizona Wildcats. These are wildly regarded as the two best and most complete teams from top to bottom in the NCAA this season and they’ll meet for the 12th time in series history with the Boilers holding an 8-4 advantage overall. The last time these teams met in 2017, the 18th ranked Boilers beat the #2 Wildcats 89-64 behind 24 points from Dakota Mathias after both teams had struggled to an 0-2 start to the Battle 4 Atlantis.
This is going to have all the feels of an Elite 8 or even Final Four type atmosphere at Gainbridge Fieldhouse that will likely be dominated by Purdue fans. Both teams will have a chance to really get a gauge on where they stand in this game on a neutral court heading into the new year and both programs with expectations of making it to Phoenix.
Let’s step back and take a shot with the ‘Three Pointer.’
1 | Keep the Ball Moving on Offense
Arizona is about as good as it gets when it comes to playing equally well on both sides of the court, but as good as their offense is (6th rated adjusted offense Kenpom), the Wildcats are as good as it gets defensively (#2 rated adjusted defense Kenpom). Arizona allows just 63.9 points per game but some of those matchups features teams that are really, really limited offensively in Morgan State (334th), Southern (282nd), UT Arlington (175th), and Colgate (152nd). That is to take nothing away from Arizona but those two teams who would have a similar efficiency rating to Purdue scored 73 (Duke-10th & Wisconsin-12th). Where Purdue differs is in their frontcourt being able to matchup with Arizona’s, which is something the Wildcats haven’t had yet this season.
Purdue’s offensive efficiency is something to behold when it is moving the ball around the arc and passing up good shots for great ones. Coach Painter has long said that sometimes a smart shot is the one a player doesn’t take because you are left open because they are leaving you open for a reason. Mid-range jump shots are the most difficult to hit by percentage in basketball and that is what Arizona is wanting to force their opponents into shooting. Luckily, Purdue has capable mid-range jump-shooters in Smith, Loyer, and Jones but those shots will likely always be there. The key will be for Purdue to continue to move the ball to either generate a post touch in a one on one situation for Edey or continue movement without the ball for a kick-out and shot or to keep the ball moving around the arc for another shooting opportunity.
2 | Get Arizona into Some Foul Trouble
This seems to be a staple for Purdue over the course of the last five year or so. If you can get those primary players off the court for extended time, you have to feel good about your best players getting more minutes against backups. This is especially true when you are talking about the most dominant big man in college sports over the last twenty years or more getting chances against guys that usually only see 6-10 minutes per game. Those fouls don’t just come from the posts though as Edey has a penchant for getting wings and guards into some fouls because they are doubling him so frequently and so hard.
This may be a bit harder than what Purdue has typically seen because Arizona does a good job of limiting their own fouls knowing their offense can make up for lapses on the defensive end. A key determining factor in this is ball movement to make those post entry passes manageable and not being forced way out onto the perimeter. Getting Edey the ball cleanly and in a position to catch and make a move makes him nearly impossible to defend, leaving teams with the choice to let him have what amounts to a free shot at the rim or challenging shots from a poor angle of defense.
If Purdue can get Oumar Ballo and Motiejus Krivas into some early foul trouble, it will bode well for the Boilers in forcing the Wildcats to play in ways they may not be comfortable in doing. The key then would be hitting the important foul shots at a solid rate to take advantage.
3 | Limit the Third and Fourth Scorers for Arizona
Just like Purdue saw with Mark Sears (Alabama) and Boo Buie (Northwestern), it’s largely going to be difficult for anyone in the country to stop those players other than if they just have a bad game. What you can do is try to limit their efficiency and don’t allow others to play above their ‘paygrade.’ If you can limit those other scorers and not allow role players to beat you, it goes a long way when you play teams of this caliber.
Arizona has a standout guard in Caleb Love who is averaging 14.1 points, 5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists and who is really a maestro as the lead guard for the Wildcats. He leads the charge for an offense that features 5 players who all average 12 or more points along with a sixth who averages 8.9. That type of balance is incredibly difficult to defend but what you can’t have is that third or fourth player suddenly exploding for 18 or more points with Love and Ballo being the primary scorers as well.
The two to look at in this regard will be guards Kylan Boswell and Pelle Larsson as both players shoot an incredibly high percentage from behind the arc at 52.5% and 60%, respectively. Coming off the game against Alabama where Purdue struggled at times to challenge some threes, allowing those two shooters to take uncontested threes would spell disaster for the Boilers.
If the Boilers can hold both of those players to 10 points or less, it would be an incredibly boost to their ability to win.
And 1 | What’s the Rotation Going to Be?
This is something that I think most Purdue fans are interested in seeing evolve into the B1G but this gives Purdue probably the best look at what it will be in the final weeks of the season and in the NCAA Tourney. We know that Smith and Edey are going to get 34 or more minutes if they don’t get into foul trouble but what about those other three spots? According to Coach Painter, those minutes really depend on matchups and who is playing well.
Coach Painter has been rather vocal about him needing to get Myles Colvin more minutes but it is hard when at those same positions stand Fletcher Loyer, Ethan Morton, and Cam Heide. The interesting thing to do is to start looking at what lineups work best with one another against Purdue’s better opponents and it gives a more clear picture. A lineup that has been rather effective has been one that features Smith, Jones, Morton, Furst, and Edey and that likely shows where Coach Painter is going to go with his primary backup minutes in this game. That’s not to say Colvin, Heide, and Gillis aren’t going to get minutes but that lineup is so far the best overall that Painter has started to go to that subbing pattern recently.
Look for Furst to get more time at the power forward position alongside Edey to help with Arizona’s size and skill but also that puts Purdue’s best defensive lineup on the floor with Morton, Jones, and Smith on the perimeter. This is a lineup that needs to be given some more time to gel as this seems like a really high level lineup defensively that also features Purdue’s two best scoring options in Smith and Edey.
Lineups for Purdue's 7 high-major opponents.— cobra. (@cobrastats) December 12, 2023
Minimum of 15 offensive possessions together pic.twitter.com/pWieiXMDHE
This is going to just an absolute great game to watch and those that are in attendance are incredibly lucky. The atmosphere is going to be electric and the level of basketball that is likely to be featured is what these big time matchups are all about. Purdue has shown an ability over the last several seasons to be able to step up in this types of games and play well to grab season defining wins. This is a whole other beast as Arizona doesn’t provide much of a flaw in their armor right now to exploit in ways Purdue likely can do to most other teams.
Purdue is going to have to play some of their best basketball coming off finals week and that is something Purdue just hasn’t done, it seems, in a long time. Last season in this same event, Purdue came out and had an absolutely abysmal shooting effort against Davidson where they went 3-25 but clawed out a victory. That type of effort is going to get Purdue beat on Saturday against an elite level team that is one of a very small amount of teams that can beat Purdue when they aren’t playing their best either. It’ll be a battle and a player like Trey Kaufman-Renn or Mason Gillis is going to have to have a really solid game to push Purdue over the hump to win.