It is a wonderful problem to have for Matt Painter and the Purdue Boilermakers. Having so much quality, experience, and depth that you are forced to bring three starters off the bench in Mason Gillis, Ethan Morton, and Caleb Furst. Nowhere else in the B1G, and possibly the entire country, does a coach have the plethora of top level talent that Painter has at his disposal. Think about this for just a moment: there are three players coming off the bench who have started games for a #1 ranked team with Furst having started 33 total games in his career, Morton has started 29 games, and Mason Gillis who has started 63 total games in his Purdue career.
Gillis came to Purdue as a lightly recruited forward more known for his baseball accomplishments than his basketball ones, thanks in large part to a knee injury that sapped his entire senior season and his freshman year at Purdue. During that time, Gillis forged himself into a player that would serve the Boilermaker offense best as a catch and shoot power forward. With that development and his work over the last four years, Gillis has never shot below 35% from behind the arc in his four seasons. In fact, he is shooting his best this season at 51.9% going 28-54 on the season.
The issue for Gillis is the development in the off season of Trey Kaufman-Renn who was said to have made a big jump in his overall game. TKR has clearly made a jump on both sides of the floor and definitely plays in the shadow of Zach Edey as a low post scoring threat. There is clearly a benefit to having TKR in the game alongside Zach as he can be another low post threat to score and that does prevent some double teams. The issue is there just just not a lot of room to operate as Zach isn’t a credible threat to score from the high post and TKR hasn’t shown that ability on a consistent basis.
Matt Painter isn't a coach to make changes for the sake of making changes and I’m sure he sees the 19-2 record and figures that changes aren’t necessary until the losses become a problem. To be fair, he is doing a good job of finding the matchups that best suit TKR and Gillis to help leverage Purdue’s advantages as much as possible. It is reflected in his distribution of minutes for the entire season with Gillis getting 19.1 minutes per game and TKR getting 16.9. The thing is that if you look at the previous 5 games, roughly a quarter of the season, Gillis’ numbers are staggeringly better than TKR’s when you place him with the other four starters (Edey, Smith, Loyer, Jones).
How drastic could those previous games be though given Gillis is getting more minutes per game than TKR already and Purdue has won all five of those games? Well, when asked to run a comparison of the two players through the previous five games with the other starters, Cobra Stats had to go back and check because he felt that his formula and numbers were incorrect. Here are those numbers:
As you can see, the analytics paint a very clear picture of how good Mason has been playing versus the struggles that TKR has been having. Again, this comes when just paired with the other four starters that Purdue has had the entire season so far (outside of Edey missing a game). With Mason, that lineup holds an offensive rating of 115.87 while holding a defensive rating of 79.31. With TKR, that lineup holds an offensive rating of 105.26 and a defensive rating of 110.53. So what does that mean?
Offensively, that lineup has been 10.5 points better from an offensive efficiency standpoint and an astounding 31.2 point differential from a defensive efficiency standpoint with Mason instead of TKR. It also means, Gillis has a net rating of 36.56 while TKR is -5.26. The analytics tell us that Gillis is simply playing better alongside the four other starters than TKR and that typically would mean he should be getting the lion’s share of the minutes. Now, he is already getting 3 more minutes per game and the value that Trey does bring is apparent. So what needs to happen?
Well, from years past it seems that Coach Painter will not do much of anything as long as he feels the outcome of the game is in control. Remember, this was a coach that took Carsen Edwards out of the starting lineup as a true freshman because he had a tendency to shoot Purdue out of games early on. Purdue hasn’t really struggled early in games but has seemed to struggle to start second halves and closing out some games of late. I think many fans would realize there are benefits to not messing with something that is working.
What do you do when the eye test is telling you the same things that the analytics are telling you? In that case, in my opinion, it needs to be rewarded with more playing time for Gillis. Get him into the starting lineup to grab 4 to 5 more minutes per game. This is a tough decision because it likely doesn’t mean a simple limitation of minutes for TKR. In fact, TKR’s minutes shouldn’t dip at all as he should serve as the primary backup for both the power forward and center position where the three can carousel the rotation by simply adding TKR and sliding him to either the forward or center position depending on who stays in the game.
It is a tough decision to make and one that I don’t think many coaches around college basketball envy Matt Painter having to make. It’s one thing to have a deep team, which comes with a set of challenges that can be difficult to control, but when that deep team has nine or ten viable starters as a major conference team, those issues tend to get amplified. It’s a problem that Matt Painter would probably prefer to have versus some earlier versions of his Boilermakers but it is a problem nonetheless.
Making a change, especially late in the season, is never easy. When the team is 19-2 and ranked 2nd in the country, a change can seem like something silly to think about. The issue is when the analytics tell the story as strongly as this one does, it may be time to look at a small shift that can push Purdue into the second half of the season and into March and hopefully into April.