Coming into this season, Purdue Boilermaker fans had three non-conference games circled on the calendar, with potential for a fourth. The dates with Wake Forest, Alabama, and West Virginia stood out as the big tests that we all knew were coming, with Tennessee possibly looming if things fell right in the Virgin Islands.
Three of the four big tests are down, and have been passed. However, all three packed their own doses of drama. Tennessee needed a last-second three-pointer to fall, and didn't get it. Wake hung in hard, being down only two with ten minutes left at Mackey, then watching a 17-3 run put the game on ice.
Then came Alabama.
The Tide held a 16-point lead with 16:40 to go and thought they were cruising. Then, Purdue turned on a defensive buzzsaw and held Alabama to only three field goals over the last 14 minutes, none in the last 8:45.
While Purdue's vicious defense continues to baffle all comers, their future opponents need to take a lot of notes on the Alabama comeback. There are a few observable factors that may contribute to the downfall of Purdue's winning streak.
1. Pressing the Pressers
Purdue spent almost seven minutes between points in the first half. They went up 13-9 with 13:05 left on a D.J. Byrd layup. Six minutes, 58 seconds, and seven turnovers later, Byrd nailed a three-pointer to cut Alabama's new-found lead to 24-16.
Lost in the euphoria over the undefeated start is the fact that the Boilers still don't have a natural point guard on the team until Lewis Jackson returns from his foot injury. Purdue had 17 turnovers to only nine assists against the Tide's own pressure defense.
E'Twaun Moore, Keaton Grant, and Chris Kramer were all victims, making iffy passes against backcourt double-teams.
Any team that can put a couple of quick on-ball defenders against one of these three and force a mistake can get some easy points off turnovers. Northwestern seems like a hurdle, provided they're willing to extend the 1-3-1 zone to incorporate a little pressure. The Wildcats just forced Stanford to cough the ball up 18 times in a 70-62 win on Saturday. Senior Jeremy Nash is averaging 2.3 steals per game, and freshman Alex Marcotullio is at 1.9 per contest, even though he only plays 16.5 minutes a night.
2. Use Good Protection
With 13:53 left and a 53-38 lead, Alabama had only five turnovers. Purdue was too busy trying to figure out how to make the offense work to worry about tightening the clamps on the Tide.
The next basket was E'Twaun Moore cruising in for a layup off of a Mikhail Torrence turnover, and the light came on. After that, the Tide bumbled their way to seven more turnovers, 3-for-17 shooting, and eight fouls.
Torrence is one of the better point guards the Boilers have faced this year, and even he was flustered by game's end. We've often seen that guard play, point guard especially, can come up huge in March, and it appears that unless a team has a top-drawer point guard who can handle a little pressure, Purdue may be able to eat them alive.
Michigan State's duo of Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious seem like a pair that could withstand a little bit of heat, as they have combined for 98 assists against 39 turnovers this season.
3. Green-Light Special
Even while Purdue was rallying, they missed seven of eight three-point jump shots. What saved them was four of the seven misses getting turned into easy putbacks off the offensive glass.
Once the Alabama game was in the rear-view mirror, Purdue moved on to an easier test against Ball State. Even in that game, the Boilers shot a miserable 4-for-23 from long range, even against the rare team against whom they could have worked well inside.
It's understandable that the offense has to be perimeter-oriented, considering that JaJuan Johnson is essentially the entire low-post game. However, there were many more possessions where hoisting up threes appeared to be the only option.
When Moore goes to the basket, he can make some seriously acrobatic layups. When Robbie Hummel takes an opponent on, the 92.7-percent free throw shooter can draw fouls and get some automatic points.
Purdue's over-reliance on three-point shots and offensive rebounding could spell doom against a team like Wisconsin, which jealously guards the defensive glass, or even Illinois, who have allowed opponents to shoot only 27.9% from long range so far this season.
The top-five ranking is wonderful, and the undefeated start is the best since Glenn Robinson and current Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin were pacing Purdue to 14-0 back in 1993-94. However, these Boilermakers are making their big games very interesting, and this year's Big Ten Conference race may be made a little TOO interesting for it.
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