For insight into the Boilermakers, we talked to Travis Miller of SB Nation site Hammer and Rails.
Burnt Orange Nation: For any Texas fans who haven’t watched Purdue play this season, what’s the quick synopsis of the Boilermakers?
Hammer & Rails: Purdue is a very good team, but there is a feeling it has underachieved and is snakebitten. It lost four games this season on last-second shots, all on the road at Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. If any one of those goes the other way Purdue gets a share of its record 25th Big Ten championship.
I say disappointment because this team was loaded with sky-high expectations coming in. Then in early December Purdue was ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history, but it lasted only a week because of Ron Harper Jr’s heave at Rutgers. Purdue has won 28 games, but has been very close to so much more.
When Purdue is on offensively it is very good. We have a lottery pick guard in Jaden Ivey who is fast, athletic, and confident. Zach Edey and Trevion Williams are a great big man combo and any team in America would love to have one of them. We have some excellent role players and some shooters that can get hot from deep. When Purdue is at its best offensively few teams can beat it.
There are some weaknesses though. In the seven losses struggles at the free-throw line were a major problem. So were turnovers at Indiana and in the Big Ten Tournament against Iowa. This team is frustrating because it really beat itself in five of the seven losses. We haven’t really been on for a consistent stretch since the second half against Illinois in early February, but after what happened to Kentucky it was a relief to see us simply take care of business against an inferior opponent in Yale.
BON: Sophomore guard Jaden Ivey is the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game. What’s the scouting report on Ivey and what makes him such a special player?
H&R: Jaden can do a little bit of everything. His athleticism is off the charts and he just glides from end to end. He has the best ability to get to the rim of any Purdue player I have ever seen, and he is capable of making good decisions too. He can live at the foul line (and sometimes struggle there) and hit outside threes. I love when he is the primary ball handler because something special can happen. He can score, make a great pass to an open shooter, or get to the line. He is the eye when our offensive hurricane gets going and rips off a 10-0 run in two minutes.
If I had a critique it would be his defense. When dialed in, he is a great defender. He can make that coast-to-coast steal and dunk with ease, but more often than not he is not dialed in or gets lost defensively. It’s like he tries to rely on his superior athleticism too much. He is still the type of player that thrives for moments like the NCAAs. He wants the ball in those big spots. If Purdue makes a big run it will be because of him.
BON: When Purdue has struggled this season, have teams been able to take away their inside scoring or have they focused on limiting good looks from the perimeter? If you were Chris Beard, how would you choose to devote your resources defensively?
H&R: Take away the shooters. Look at starting guard Sasha Stefanovic. He has struggled of late, going 5-of-22 from three in the last four games. He is going to get his looks off of screens and catch-and-shoot chances. When he is on, hitting 3-4-5 threes per game it opens up so much for Purdue both inside and out. It allows guys like Eric Hunter Jr. and Mason Gillis to get open looks. It means Purdue isn’t focused so much on the post. Purdue has five guys shooting 40 percent or better from three, and Sasha was over 40 percent for much of the season before his recent slump. When he is on it opens up so much more for the other guys. As good as Ivey, Edey, and Williams are, we tend to go as Sasha goes. In five of the seven losses he had one made three or less.
BON: The Boilers rank No. 92 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Why does Purdue struggle on that end of the court and what matchups with Texas concern you?
H&R: The defense has shown improvement of late, as it was near 115th late into the season. I am honestly more concerned with the inconsistency of the offense, to be honest. The defense was significantly better in the Big Ten Tournament and was very good against Yale (but again, it’s Yale). We have struggled at times on the perimeter, especially in getting lost on switches and screens. We’re susceptible to having a good guard go nuts on us like Johnny Davis and Ron Harper Jr. did. Of course, you have Marcus Carr. He had a couple of big games against us that included a game-winner against us in Minneapolis last season.
Purdue needs to trust its bigs defensively and not over help. If we over pursue the double in the post and leave wide-open shooters we’re in trouble. We also seem to be the worst team in America in giving up baskets in the last four seconds of the shot clock from anywhere on the floor. Considering that is how North Texas beat us last year by playing at a glacial pace and Texas likes to do the same, I am concerned. The defense played well enough to beat Iowa in the Big Ten title game, but 17 turnovers, four missed one-and-one front ends, and other missed free throws killed us. Even in that, it was a one-point game with about 2:30 left.
BON: Texas is 4-1 against Purdue with two wins in the NCAA Tournament. Chris Beard has two wins against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. Is this a perfect storm of Purdue-beating ability?
H&R: It certainly looks like it, as Shaka Smart also had a 2011 win over us during his Final Four run with VCU where he ran us off the floor. The first Beard loss featured a total collapse in the final three minutes of regulation where we blew a double-digit lead against Little Rock. Against Texas Tech we had lost center Isaac Haas (a physical presence very similar to Zach Edey) in the first round to a freak injury. Finally, I was at the 1990 Texas tourney loss as a kid, and it sucked. The two regular season games recently were great games that came down to the end, but the one in West Lafayette was particularly troubling because Purdue was up five, with the ball, and about two minutes left before blowing it. That is normally winning time at Mackey, and it was the first sign that the 2019-20 season was going to have speed bumps.
When you combine the Texas history, the Beard history, and Purdue’s general history of always finding the banana peel in March (especially in times like now where things look to be breaking perfectly) it is a full five-alarm PTSD (Purdue Tournament Stress Disorder) moment for our fans.
BON: Does your nervousness for this game increase with the knowledge that the winner has a clear path to the Final Four? This is a big opportunity.
H&R: The Final Four has been the goal for this team since last season, and the early No. 1 ranking only cemented that. Before the tourney started I was thinking a ceiling of Sweet 16 because we have just not been consistent, but that door looks wide open now with Kentucky and Baylor already at home. We also have a double-digit win over North Carolina already this season, so yes, there is a bit of looking ahead.
I was in Louisville, 40 feet from the play when we had our hearts broken by Virginia three years ago. The only time all night I even allowed myself to think a Final Four was going to happen was when the rebound was tipped into the back court. Purdue fans have a lifetime of pain in the NCAA Tournament. It’s been 42 years since we have been to a Final Four, and we have had at least five Final Four-worthy teams either blow it (1988), have a crippling injury (1994, 2010, 2018), or just have terrible luck (2019). Even the 1990 team that lost to Texas was a No. 2 seed and had Final Four hopes. I didn’t even mention 1996, 1998, 2000, 2011, and 2017.
2019 taught me that I won’t believe we’re in the Final Four until they’re handing us a regional trophy. This team has a very good chance, so much so that if we don’t make it, I have to wonder if it will ever happen. I have to be honest that Texas scares me because you guys have talent, experience, have beaten good teams, and we know what Chris Beard does to us. I am going to be nervous to the very end, because in 2016 we led Beard 65-52 with 3:30 left and lost. It is NEVER easy for Purdue fans in March, and the more things start to swing our way, like now, the more nervous I get.