The Purdue Boilermakers basketball team won their third straight game Thursday night, knocking off Wisconsin in a 60-57 defensive struggle that lived up to the stereotype of Big Ten basketball's halfcourt grinding pace.
The Boilers pulled into a tie (in the loss column) for second place in the league behind undefeated Michigan State and, in the process, we learned a little more about what makes the Old Gold and Black tick. Five things, to be exact.
After sitting out the Boilermakers' first 19 games as he recovered from foot surgery, point guard Lewis Jackson logged a surprisingly high 12 minutes against the Badgers in his season debut Thursday night.
Jackson's return shoots down any lingering speculation that the sophomore would redshirt and not play at all in 2009-2010, although LewJack still has a lot of work to do stamina and ball handling-wise before he's ready to contribute significantly.
However, the bottom line is that Purdue's Big Ten title and national title hopes are much brighter with a healthy Lewis Jackson, especially since he will have some time to work off the rust before the tournaments roll around.
Purdue center JaJuan Johnson, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, arrived late for Thursday's game against Wisconsin. Translation: Purdue center JaJuan Johnson, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, came off the bench in both halves during Thursday's game against Wisconsin.
Matt Painter is not the kind of coach who bends rules for his best players. Painter isn't going to show favoritism or leniency just because he's desperate for a victory in a basketball game. Even in a must-win game between top 20 foes, Painter kept his priorities straight, brought Johnson off the bench, and sent a message to his squad that some things are more important than winning.
Johnson responded positively, owning up to his mistake in the postgame press conference and tallying 14 points off the bench...and yes, the Boilermakers pulled out the win anyway.
The Boilermakers have won games the past few years under Matt Painter by playing lock-down, in-your-face defense that forces opponents to start their offense 40 feet from the basket. During Purdue's three-game losing streak this month, that intensity and focus went out the window and, unfortunately, it's not quite all the way back yet.
Let me summarize for you: a Matt Painter team playing Matt Painter basketball doesn't let Keaton Nankivil hit seven three-pointers in eight attempts. It DEFINITELY doesn't leave Keaton Nankivil wide-open in the final minute with the game on the line for a go-ahead three-pointer.
This Purdue team did. And these Boilermakers are lucky they escaped with a win playing sub-par defense (compared to what they're capable of, that is).
Purdue nearly saw an important game slip away at the beginning of the second half Thursday night due to some less-than-stellar officiating and (perhaps more importantly) the way the Boilermakers responded to that officiating.
After taking a 27-25 lead to the locker room, the Boilers allowed Wisconsin to score the first nine points of the second half. A 9-0 run is always critical in basketball, but in a Big Ten-type "first team to 60 wins" struggle, it looms even larger.
During the spurt, the Boilermakers committed six team fouls, many of the hand-check variety. On one horrible defensive possession, the home team was whistled for three consecutive ticky-tack whistles in the span of 16 seconds.
The players, coaching staff, and partisan crowd were obviously beside themselves, and I'm still curious if ESPN has to pay a fine to the FCC every time the student section says something not appropriate for primetime television, but the thing that concerned me the most was how much the whistles got in the Boilers' heads.
No, they weren't all good calls; yes, the referees went from calling nothing in the first half to blowing whistles when a player breathed on an opponent, but Painter can't spend more time talking to the referees in a six-minute span than he does instructing his players. A team known for aggressive defense can't get so rattled by hand checks that they quit guarding people. A senior can't start fouling all the way down the floor because he mistakenly believes the referees have already used their quota of whistles and he'll get away with it.
If Purdue wants to make noise in March, they have to be able to survive adversity. A team full of upperclassmen should be capable of that. However, against Northwestern (when JaJuan Johnson got in early foul trouble), they weren't. And against Wisconsin last night, they nearly saw it all fall apart again.
When the Boilers need an important hoop, they put the ball in the hands of E'Twaun Moore. Oh, and in case you didn't know, that's the way it's been for the better part of three consecutive seasons, but somehow Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson get most of the attention anyway.
Moore has led Purdue in scoring each of the past two years (averaging 12.9 ppg in his freshman season and following that up with 13.8 ppg in his sophomore campaign), but he is now developing into one of the nation's premier scorers as a junior.
The Boilermakers' sharp-shooting guard is pouring in 17.6 points a contest and making over 50 percent of his field goal attempts to spearhead the Old Gold and Black's offensive attack.
Against Wisconsin Thursday night, Moore played a team-high 38 minutes, dropped in 20 crucial points, and came up with a clutch basket whenever his team needed one.
None of Moore's shots were as gigantic as the floater he hit in the lane with 25 seconds left to put the Boilermakers on top for good. E'Twaun has shown an amazing propensity to get into the paint against whoever happens to guard him and it's an enormous luxury for Painter to put the ball in his hands at crunch time and know good things will happen.
Moore did the same thing before intermission, scoring (seemingly with ease) a go-ahead basket with less than five seconds left on the clock to give Purdue the halftime momentum. In fact, Moore got to the rim so easily I wondered out loud why Purdue didn't run a clear-out for him on every single possession (since they'd only managed 27 points in the entire period).
It says something about Painter's stellar recruiting that his trio of juniors (Hummel, Johnson, and Moore) may each earn all-Big Ten honors during one of their first three seasons. Hummel got the nod in 2008, Johnson was selected in 2009, and two-time Second Team pick Moore seems a shoo-in for the award this March.
If Moore keeps playing the way he is right now, that may not be the only trophy the Boilermakers get their hands on in March.