Another year, another fifth-year transfer point guard sent to Purdue to fix the ailing problems that have become habit at this point: inconsistencies, inexperience, and lack of play making.
Insert Spike Albrecht, one time retired college basketball player from the University of Michigan, one time NCAA tournament darling, now newest savior to a team desperate for even a sliver of the March glory Spike tasted early in his career as a Wolverine. But is he the answer?
Like last year, this upcoming Purdue team was going to come in with a lot of back court questions. It was the reason why pundits didn't show Purdue the kind of love we wanted/expected. The old adage is guard play wins in March. After the Little Rock game, it's hard to argue with them. Purdue, despite their skyline, could not pull out a win against an inferior opponent largely on their inability to get quality guard play in pivotal times of their first round game - READ: OH MY GOD THEY'RE PRESSING.
As often is the case, to look forward, I want to look into the past. It's possible that last year's team was just one player short, and that player might have been a ghost of transfer past. Jon Octeus came to us two seasons ago and helped turned around a program expected to finish towards the bottom of the Big Ten again. Instead, he helped lead a young Boiler team into the tournament - baptizing Bloomington in the process. He was the long, athletic, and steady hand last year's team missed so severely.
Johnny Hill, last year's transfer, looked the part. He was super skinny, just like Octeus, and could get to the rim at will. He was a pest on defense, hunched over, sprawling limbs swiping balls and spilling sweat on the floor. But unlike Octeus, Hill could not knock down even the openest of jump shots. Teams could absolutely ignore him - see: Arkansas Little-Rock triple teams - and double down on the behemoths in the post or cut off already thin driving lanes for other guards. Unlike Octeus, Hill struggled to keep the ball in his own team's hand.
Which meant handing the keys of the offense to the steady but never spectacular and always diminutive P. J. Thompson. Thompson has all the check marks checked off of a leader, a fan favorite, of an underdog turning himself into a division I college basketball player. He finished with the 3rd best offensive rating IN THE NATION according to kenpom. He was just a sophomore. So why the concern? Because he finished with one of the most efficient seasons in college basketball and has probably peaked.
P. J. Thompson deserves nothing but credit. He's turned into himself into a viable defender, a protector of the ball, and a decent spot-up shooter. He damn near perfected it this last year. He went from a 28% from deep to 41% this year. He had a near 4 to 1 assist ratio this last year.
However, as I said on today's podcast, those assists aren't necessarily empty calories, but they're also not packed with nutrition. They weren't - for the most part - a result of P. J. attacking the defense and pulling in defenders. Instead, they were reliant upon shooters hitting their perimeter shots coming off screens and motion. And yes, P. J. was good at hitting them in time, but those are also the easiest assists to accumulate. In the same way, Thompson lack of aggression keeps him out of the tricky situation where turnovers are most likely to happen. This is neither plainly good or bad, but as we saw against Little-Rock, it's tough to win tournament games without a guard that can consistently create and attack the basket.
Which is something Spike does with in an unorthodox but effective way. He's not much more explosive of an athlete than P. J. though he certainly plays taller. What he is, is someone willing to attack the basket, using hesitation and angle to create space and get to the rim where he has a variety of off-balance and sneaky finishes. Is he the answer to all our problems? No, but he provides a possible key we didn't have last year. He's willing, unlike P. J., to push the issue, to attack the defense and get into them. When Spike is on - like the first half of the NCAA championship game - he provides a ceiling that we just don't have with P. J. He provides Purdue with a point guard capable of making plays for himself and others by attacking and twisting the defense to his advantage.
Along with incoming freshman Carsen Edwards - more explosive a driver than either P. J. or Spike - this Boiler team has the chance to expand their offensive game and find that balance between bullying post play, sharp shooters, and dynamic drivers. Spike does not fill every gap on this team, but he absolutely raises the ceiling and provides a gear we were missing last year.
For Purdue, tournament success has been like trying to catch smoke in their hands. With Spike on board, we now have someone who knows how to catch magic in a bottle.