Last week, after sitting through the brutal slogs of Northwestern and Maryland, I asked if adjustments were in order. It wasn’t just that Purdue lost to Northwestern and Maryland, conference road losses happen, it was how the Boilermakers lost those games that concerned me. To put it bluntly, the basketball was bad. The offense, in particular, looked like it was on auto-pilot. It was “walk the ball down the court, run something to get Zach in the post, pass to the post, stand around and see what happens.” It was predictable, boring, and based on putting up 58 on Northwestern and 54 against Maryland, ineffective. Looking past that, the guys seemed to be going through the motions. They were doing what they were supposed to do for the most part, but their enthusiasm was on par with my enthusiasm for washing the dishes. It needs to be done, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the experience. What gets lost sometimes in the Purdue system is that every player on this team is a baller.
Ethan Morton wasn’t Mr. Basketball in Pennsylvania because he didn’t commit turnovers and played tough defense. He was Mr. Basketball in a state containing cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia because he was an elite baller, able to handle, rebound, pass, defend, and score.
Fletcher Loyer didn’t average almost 27 points a game as a senior standing around on the perimeter, hoping for a spot up jumper off a post kick out. He took games over by scoring on every level. He was the man Homestead built their entire team around.
Mason Gillis wasn’t a spot up shooter built like linebacker in high school. He was a dude that used his muscles to get to the rim and punish anyone in his way. Sure he could rebound and shoot from the perimeter, but those were only two facets of his game.
I’m not going to lie, I have no idea what David Jenkins Jr. did in high school, but he wasn’t a break in case of emergency shooter at Utah. He was a dude capable of dropping 21 on Southern Cal on 5-12 shooting, including going 5-9 from deep.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. These guys are more than Zach Edey’s sidekicks.
Much has been blamed on basketball brands and officiating for Purdue’s road shooting. Both of those have merits (officiating more than basketball brands IMO) but I think something more fundamental is at play. You’re asking guys to be passive on offense right up until the point where they need to hit a kick out jumper. That’s it, that’s the only time they look for their own shot, otherwise their primary objective is to get Zach shots. These guys have been “the man” on every team they’ve played on before getting to Purdue. I promise you, none of them shifted around the perimeter hoping to put up 9 points on 3-7 3 point shooting. Sure, they can do it on occasion (and do it much better with the extra energy and focus home games provide) but it’s not why they’re college basketball players.
What I liked about the Ohio State game is everyone came out looking to score. David Jenkins put up 9 points on 6 shots after attempting (and missing) a total of 4 shots against Maryland and Northwestern. He played with confidence and took shots he wanted, not just shots he was assigned in the offense. He split the point guard duties with Braden, instead of getting a few minutes in each half, because he was playing his game.
Brandon Newman came out looking for his offense, both off the dribble and from deep. He put 8 points on 3-9 shooting after scoring 6 points combined in the last two outings. The funny thing about Newman (and most players) is when they’re allowed to be aggressive on offense, they tend to be more aggressive and locked in on defense. Again, this was the Newman I was hoping for all season off the bench.
In the first half when Mason Gillis got the ball, saw an opening, drove to the hoop, and drew a shooting foul at the rim, I almost dropped my beer. He dribbled towards the basket more on that play than I’ve seen him dribble in his career. That’s what I’ve been begging for all season (granted, the next time he attempted it, he committed a charge). I also cover Kansas State and their star player, Keontae Johnson has the identical build of Gillis. He uses it to bully defenders and score at the rim. Granted Johnson is one of the more skilled players in the nation, but nothing is preventing Gillis from using his chiseled 230 pound frame from bullying a few defenders on the way to the bucket.
For my money, the Ohio State game was the best offensive game I’ve seen Ethan Morton play in a long while, perhaps ever. Maybe he had a flashback to high school, where he averaged 23 points a game, because he was looking for his shot. I’ve seen too many Morton, “I’m supposed to take this shot in the offense, I better toss this thing towards the rim,” jumpers miss everything. Against the Buckeye’s he looked confident. When the ball hit his hands, and he saw an available shot, he took it, not because he was supposed to, but because he’s a baller, and that’s what ballers do. When Ohio State pressed, instead of getting the ball at half court and waiting for Smith to come get the ball from him, he remembered that he could dribble and run an offense as well. Teams press Purdue to break up the flow of the game, but when Morton is confident and attacking, Purdue can punish the press.
One play in particular sticks out. After turning the ball over on Purdue’s first possession because he waited around for Smith after breaking the press, Morton tried something different. Instead of waiting for Smith, so he could hand the ball off 30 feet away from the basket and give the Buckeye’s exactly what they want out of the press, he simply kept going. He entered the ball to Edey on the block with 23 left on the shot clock, found his spot, and buried a 3 with no hesitation when the ball worked its way around the key with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock. When Purdue waits for Smith after breaking the press, the offense doesn’t start until around the 17 second mark on the shot clock.
Purdue can up the tempo of a game without taking Zach off the floor, by letting guys like Morton and Loyer run early offense. If the opposition wants to jam Braden and hurry Purdue’s elaborate offensive sets, the Boilermakers are more than capable of playing 4 on 4 with Morton or Fletcher initiating the offense. These guys can play ball. Every possession doesn’t require 12 screens and 7 passes to get Zach on the low block.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for Zach Edey to be the #1, #2, #3 option for the offense, but it doesn’t have to be every time down the court, and it doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of every other player on the roster. In fact, making him the sole focus of the offense, like he was against Northwestern and Maryland takes away a huge part of his game. People forget that he’s one of, if not the, best offensive rebounders in the nation. That aspect of his game gets put on the back burner when he’s the only one of the team shooting. Edey had 2 offensive boards against Maryland, and 3 against Northwestern. He had 7 against the Buckeyes. Zach doesn’t need an elaborate post set to get him the ball. Sometimes a shot early in the clock is the best way to feed the big man, with the added bonus of Purdue’s other guys getting to play their games, instead of being cogs in Zach Edey’s offense.
Sometimes Matt Painter gets too caught up in the system. I get it, his system has helped make Purdue one of the most consistent teams in the nation. He has 100 different sets and wants to run them all. Charles Barkley touched on that after the St. Peters loss. Sometimes Purdue gets so caught up on running the system, they forget they’ve got more than 1 or 2 guys capable of making plays. Yes, getting the ball into the paint is often Purdue’s best option, but it’s not their only option. It’s up to Coach Painter to decide when to let his guys play, and when to pull them back and run the offense. When everyone on the team is looking for their offense, instead of only looking to facilitate Zach’s offense, this Purdue team is a National Championship contender, possibly the favorite.
It’s up to Coach Painter to decide when to let his guys play, and when to pull them back and run the offense. He found that balance against Ohio State and Purdue looked like the best team in the nation instead of a team that couldn’t score 60 points against Northwestern and Maryland. I get it, you want to live (or die) doing what you do, but I hope Coach doesn’t forget he’s got a team of ballers, and sometimes he needs to let them ball.