Checking in with ... Purdue
Purdue could win the Big Ten and go far in the NCAA tournament
The Boilermakers bring one of the most tenacious defenses in the conference
Speedy freshman Lewis Jackson could give the Boilermakers a true point guard
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Each time the drill began, four Purdue players spread across the bottom of the lane with locked hands, as if they were readying for a game of Red Rover. Any resemblance to playground games vanished, though, when an assistant coach threw the ball out to the perimeter. This part of Tuesday's practice was called "No-Man's Land," and the locked-handed crew would release and close out hard on their defensive assignments, beginning brief sessions of 4-on-4 that were a competitive extension of the classic shell drill.
A team was considered the victor if it got three defensive straight stops, but there was a catch: Not only did you have to keep your opponent from scoring, you had to keep them out of the lane, too. Two feet in the black was considered just as bad as a layup, and this was reasonable logic, since the Boilermakers managed to go 15-3 in the Big Ten last year -- and finish as the league's second-most defensively efficient team -- while lacking an interior enforcer, and didn't add one over the offseason.
The drill might not have been notable if it hadn't gone on for a grueling 45 minutes. Neither team could get the requisite three stops, and coach Matt Painter wasn't about to let it end early, his mood devolving from encouraging ("That's some good [stuff] right there") to disgusted ("You guys are under-functioning as defenders"). No one was spared, not even bullish junior guard Chris Kramer, who led the team in steals last year with 2.3 per game and spent much of Tuesday doing what he does every practice: grimacing due to pain from compartment syndrome in both legs.
To Kramer, Painter said at one point, "The thing is you're rarely ever in the right position. You still make plays. Think what you'd do if you were in position." Kramer, it should be noted, was the 2007-08 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. But that award was doled out last March, and this was Oct. 21, just 10 days from the Boilers' first exhibition of the new season. It was prime time for re-hardening the troops.
On the whiteboard Purdue's players gathered around prior to the start of practice, the first point of emphasis read, "Be Physical Without Fouling." The line between what's considered overly physical and what's considered a foul tends to be blurrier in the Big Ten than any other conference, and Purdue, which forced turnovers on a higher percentage of possessions (25.5) than any other team that reached last year's NCAA tournament, is among the best at taking advantage of the grey area. The way No-Man's Land finally ended, then, was appropriate: with senior walk-on Bobby Riddell, of the reserves team, trying to drive into the paint, getting sandwiched and hip-checked by Kramer and Keaton Grant at the elbow; and the ball being ripped out of Riddell's hands before he was discarded -- hard -- to the floor.
Grant, exalted, heaved the ball to the other end of the court and it one-hopped into Mackey Arena's lower bleachers. It was the kind of celebration usually reserved for winning a conference title. Purdue got close to one, a year ahead of schedule, by guarding the way Painter was taught to as a player under Gene Keady in West Lafayette, and an assistant under (now Illinois coach) Bruce Weber at Southern Illinois. With Wisconsin, last year's defensive kings of the Big Ten, having lost its best perimeter defender (Michael Flowers) and its two lane-clogging bigs (Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma), the Boilermakers should be the league's top team on D -- and should win a conference title as a result.
There is also potential for Purdue to become a great scoring team, and this could be the difference between its season ending in the Sweet 16 or the Final Four. One of Painter's favorite talking points is that he has the Big Ten's Nos. 1, 2 and 3 long-distance shooters in his starting lineup. Sophomore forward Robbie Hummel, the likely preseason player of the year in the league, shot 44.7 percent, Grant shot 44.0 percent, ultra-smooth sophomore shooting guard E'Twaun Moore, who was the Boilers' leading scorer by a narrow margin last year and will likely lead them again, shot 43.4 percent. With that level of accuracy, then, how did Purdue only rank fifth in the league in offensive efficiency (at 1.12 points per possession, adjusted) and 49th in the country? The answer lies in the shooting decisions made by the rest of their roster.
While standing in front of the whiteboard, Painter launched into a classic (and very important) rant about shot selection, although it requires some PG-ification for print: "Every guy in here is different. You've gotta get that figured out. Now we're not having a [bleeping] free-for-all here, guys, with everyone shooting the [bleeping] ball. Some people are. But those [bleepers] that are, got that" -- he points to a 44 percent figure that's written on the board -- "next to their name when they shoot three-pointers. They got that" -- he points to a 52 percent figure on the board -- "when they shoot regular twos. That's something they have done. Not I have done. They decide that."
Painter did not call out anyone directly, but he was referencing players who had been taking shots early in the shot clock while heavily guarded in practice. He has good reason to be critical of his auxiliary offense, which put up some ugly percentages last season. Kramer, whose defensive value is immense, hit just 10 of 46 long-range attempts (21.7 percent); junior forward Nemanja Calasan shot just 38.5 percent from the field and had an atrocious assist-to-turnover ratio of 1-to-3.2; freshman forward Scott Martin, who has since transferred to Notre Dame, shot just 37.3 percent from the field and also had a sub-zero assist-to-turnover ratio (1-to-1.1). If Painter can keep the bulk of the shots coming from his Big Three, his offense could soar.
One of Painter's other talking points -- one he mentioned before practice and in his media day press conference -- is that Hummel managed to make first-team All-Big Ten as a freshman despite taking just 7.5 shot attempts per game in league play. "He's a very unselfish player," Painter said. "He does a lot of little things that help you win games."
Encouraging Hummel to shoot more, though, would be beneficial. Moore and Grant are capable of being all-league selections, too, but Hummel was Purdue's most efficient player last season by far, averaging 1.53 points per shot attempt. His 126.7 efficiency rating (from kenpom.com) was higher than those posted by UCLA's Kevin Love or UNC's Tyler Hansbrough. The result of having the ball in Hummel's hands is never a free-for-all. It's usually smart offense.