Beating the Zone: Purdue tops Eastern Michigan 69-64

Purdue came up with a 69-64 victory today against the Eastern Michigan Eagles in Mackey Arena. Here are a few of my notes, please chime in using the comments section if you saw something a little differently.

Déjà vu: Purdue struggled mightily against Eastern Michigan’s aggressive zone defense. EMU’s head coach Rob Murphy spent 8 years coaching under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, and has brought Coach Boeheim’s devotion to halfcourt traps to Ypsilanti, MIchigan. In the first half, Kendall Stephens aka THE KID was on fire and hit three 3-pointers to mask problems handing EMU’s defense, and as that shooting cooled Purdue’s ineffectiveness showed. EMU was rotating very well to take away some of the passing lanes into the post, and Purdue was confused. The primary ball-handlers (Ronnie, Bryson, Terone) couldn’t find driving lanes and mostly settled for harmless east-west passing at the top of the arc. On many possessions, they would spend as much as 20 seconds slowly swinging the ball around to find Hammons/Simpson down low, get denied, and scramble against the shot clock. Decisions need to be made very quickly against a zone like EMU’s, and Purdue seemed happy to take their time on every possession (or turn the ball over off of lazy passes). Very sloppy offense, especially in the second half.

All that being said, last year Purdue lost this matchup. This year, Coach Painter’s guys found a way to win. Bryson Scott and AJ Hammons hit their free throws down the stretch to keep the lead in hand. And solid defense, combined with EMU settling for a ton of isolation sets, prevented EMU from taking a lead late in the game. Hammons was a defensive rock inside (4 blocks, matching his average which is currently 5th in the nation), and gave the perimeter defenders a safety valve if they got beat. Basil Smotherman has been absolutely stellar of late, and was the only perimeter player actively probing for soft spots in the Eagles’ zone. Smotherman’s cuts are fantastic, and his athleticism allows him to finish more often than not. I firmly believe he’s Purdue’s player with the highest ceiling. Bryson Scott was very active on defense, but took a while to adapt to the zone (didn’t look comfortable until late in the second half). Peck is such a calming presence on the court, spaces the floor well, and hustles on both ends. Him and Sterling Carter have been huge for the Boilers this year. Simpson didn’t get much playing time in the second half (though he got the start over AJ), and I attribute that to inconsistent defensive play. But Purdue showed poise, and as much as I was frustrated about our stagnant offense, I was really never in doubt that the Good Guys would prevail. What a refreshing feeling, especially when the play is a little lackluster.

Coach Painter started 4 freshman for the first time since the Baby Boilers. I think it’s safe to say that he really likes his roster right now. Bryson got the start over Ronnie (who was late for practice), The Kid over Ray D, Smotherman over Peck, and Simpson over Hammons. It worked fairly well, which shows how deep the Boilers are this year.
My ideal starting lineup: Johnson & Johnson, The Kid, Smotherman, Hammons. With Bryson, Peck, and Simpson off the bench right away.

Nobody but AJ and Bryson can shoot free throws. Purdue players not named Hammons or Scott shot 50% from the line today. I really have nothing else to say here. Practice your free throws, guys. I’m looking at you, Terone and Ray D.

EMU’s Karrington Ward, a junior college transfer from Moraine Valley Community College, torched us today with 25 points on 9-16 shooting (4-8 from three). He’s an athletic freak, has great length, and uses great positioning instincts to crash the defensive glass. Ward could make the Eagles a very strong mid-major squad next year (he’s only a junior), and I think he’ll be playing professionally somewhere once he graduates.

Overall, Purdue got the win without playing great. Though there are a lot of ways we can improve, an 8-2 start to the season ain’t bad…and I keep finding gems (like Smotherman’s explosiveness and Scott’s bulldog-ness) that get me excited for the future.

"I have a full blown man-crush on B Scott. Yeah you can print that!" -- Derrick, BS reader.

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