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Barstool Contender Series: I Was Wrong About Purdue

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This was a series I started last season and something I want to continue this year. The goal of this is to highlight and discuss teams that are flying a little bit under the radar or just needs to be talked about that can contend on a national stage. Last year we covered the likes of Cincinnati, South Carolina, Dayton, Maryland and Notre Dame. We’ll take a look at different teams across the country as the season goes on, typically before or right after a marquee game and breakdown their strengths, weaknesses and what to expect moving forward. We move on this year with Purudue. You can read the rest of the Contender Series as it goes on here: 

West Virginia

Texas Tech

I have a statement. Purdue, I was wrong about you. It was the second most egregious error I made in the preseason, with the first being not having Mikal Bridges on the top-50 player list heading into the preseason. The second was having Purdue outside of my top-25, which they clearly are now. So with that said, let’s take a deeper look at this team, what’s to like about them going forward and into March and where my concerns lie with them. This is a team that is currently loved by computer models, ranking 2nd in KenPom and being top-10 in both AdjO and AdjD. The biggest reason as to why?

Purdue has gotten away from what Purdue basketball used to be and has truly adapted the new pace and space style of play. The Boilermakers are shooting more threes than ever before under Matt Painter. They are currently attempting 3s on 40% of shots, which is 104th in the country. They’ve only been above 35% three times since Painter took over in 2005-06. They are also shooting 41.5% from the 3-point line which is 7th in the country. Again, that number is the best Purdue has shot under Painter and only the 3rd time they’ve ranked in the top-70 nationally in 3-point shooting. The ability to do that is leaving the lane open for Isaac Haas to operate.

Haas has been the surprise for me. Heading into the year I questioned just how good the offense would look with the loss of Caleb Swanigan. What made Purdue so good on offense last year was the fact that Swanigan could do multiple things. First, he could step out and be a threat to shoot. That left the lane open for dribble penetration and kicks. Second, he was an incredible passer, especially from the high post. His ability to do that let Painter play Haas with him if he wanted and run a hi-lo in which Swanigan had the option to shoot or pass from that high spot. With him gone, the lane would be slightly more clogged and I wondered just how good Haas would be passing out of the post. His assist rate has actually stayed the same at 6.8%, but the key is he’s cut down on turnovers. He had a turnover rate of 21% last year and it’s down to 16% this year.

This is where Purdue is starting to catch some teams. They have to make the decision to double on Haas in the post and leave a shooter or just play 1v1. Teams also can’t really run a zone against this team due to the fact there are typically four shooters on the floor. Haas grades out as ‘very good’ per Synergy on pass out situations from post ups. Now, he’s not looking to do it a ton, but on 34 passes the team is scoring 1.324 points per possession. More importantly, he’s passing to spot up shooters. Out of the 34 passes, 29 have gone to spot up shots while 5 have gone to cuts. You can see here against Nebraska his pass back out. He does do a good job of getting the quick pass back out and has a feel for when the double is coming. Here he takes one little move and then just immediately kicks it back out for an open three.

This Purdue team does have incredible balance and you really do have to pick and choose who you want to takeaway. But, the player I want to talk about might be one of the least talked about players in the country. That’s Dakota Mathias, who has turned into this team’s best player due to his ability to simply do everything. He grades out in the 95th percentile offensively scoring 1.142 points per possession. Defensively he can guard multiple positions and typically draws the best wing from the other team. Throw in the fact that he has to help out rebounding (12% defensive rebounding rate) due to Purdue’s guards each being 6’1″ and he’s one of the more well-rounded players in the country.

Mathias is known best for his spot up shooting, scoring 1.492 points per possession on 61 possessions. However, Purdue will run him off of screens and even use him as the ball handler in pick and roll sets. His ability to run off screens is what makes him special though. He does an excellent job of setting up his defender to get pinned and then has a quick release with his shot. It seems rather insignificant, but it’s one of those small things that helps this offense really go. When a coach has to plan against off ball screens and how to hedge or switch it’s going to lead to confusion and easy buckets. This play from the Michigan game stuck out to me. Mathias just consistently works to get open. First, he notices he has Eli Brooks on him and tries to take him in the post. When that’s not there he uses Haas at the top of the key to get open. He starts wide so he can curl into the shot and has that quick release. Again, a small thing here, but the fact that he gets his feet set before he’s even turned and has the ball in his shooting pocket is unreal.

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Defensively, there’s a lot to like about Purdue as well. First is the fact they can switch a bunch of screens and has size with Haas and Haarms in the post. Now, the obvious glaring weakness defensively is when teams bring Haas out and make him guard high ball screens. The key here though is the fact that you really need to have a big that can either pop or athletic enough to dive right away and get Haas caught flat footed. If it’s a traditional big, Haas can just hedge and then recover. This is also where you see Painter go offense/defense with Haarms and Haas late in games. Haarms is more agile on his feet and an excellent rim protector. It’s not the ideal situation to have to manage that but it hasn’t reared its ugly head yet.

Purdue doesn’t force a ton of turnovers defensively, ranking just 189th in turnover rate. But, they make you work for a shot which typically ends up being contested and late in the shot clock. Most importantly, Purdue simply doesn’t foul. They don’t play a physical brand of defense, it’s way more predicated on sliding your feet to stay in front and then knowing you have help at the rim. They aren’t going to get up in your shorts, press you and bump you. There is a little worry about how many threes Purdue gives up, which is typically the better number to look at than percentage, but most of these threes end up being late in the clock.

Like every other team in the country, there are some concerns when it comes to Purdue. First, can they get help from the bench? Right now the starting five contributes 80% of the scoring and really the only two off the bench that provide any scoring are Matt Haarms and Ryan Cline. As the season progresses or if there’s any foul trouble can Haarms/Cline become more consistent on the offensive side of the ball or can someone else step up? I’m not too worried about this as a glaring weakness due to the balance of the starting five though.

The main concern I have here is what happens when they play those athletic teams in the NCAA Tournament? That has been the knock on Purdue for years and really the teams that continue to give them trouble are the ones that just out-athlete Purdue. That’s what Tennessee did down in the Bahamas. Grant Williams was able to neutralize Vince Edwards, which provides that mismatch with the small-ball four and when you take him out of the equation you tend to get a letdown. The other part of the problem here is both guards being 6’1″. If they play a team with bigger guards that are worth something, can they take advantage? Could we see opponents like that do what Villanova does and post up their point guard and move a big to the wing? Going hand in hand with this is not having any guaranteed NBA players. It seems like a weird thing, but go look at the recent title winners. Every title team has had that guaranteed NBA player/first round pick, which Purdue doesn’t have. That means there’s likely a talent ceiling, especially with it being a senior-heavy roster.

But, this is a top-10 team in the country right now and one of the two best teams in the Big 10. They have a chance to go on a run over the next 3 weeks as they’ll be favored in every game until the 2nd week of February. They then play at Ohio State and at Michigan State. A split there likely means they’ll still win the Big 10 (likely tie for the conference title). If they sweep both, it will be an outright win. This is arguably Painter’s best chance to get to a Final Four, something Purdue needs to get back to in the near future. If they get there it will be because of shooting, an uptempo pace and balance. Credit to Painter for changing the style of play.