Hawkeyes Trap Boilers 70-63, Spoil Mount's Return
The refs were atrocious. Iowa players are still holding AJ. Mike Gesell falls down when his cat bumps him. The refs stole a timeout. Adam Woodbury moves on all his screens. When Morgan Burke stepped on the floor at halftime, you could see the gloom spreading from his footprints like the Grinch stealing joy from Whoville. Someone stole Painter's car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. OK, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about what really cost Purdue this game. Sure, some of these things did have an impact on the game - Burke drew more boos at halftime when he presented an honorary game ball to Rick Mount* than anyone other than Larry, Moe and Curly** - but even with all that, this was a 4-point game with 2:07 to play. Even after all THAT, the Boilers had a chance to grab it near the end, and they ended up holding nothing but air.
*no, really - it was funny because you could tell people were trying to figure out how to boo Burke and cheer Mount at the same time **or maybe it was Shemp; I'm not sure how the Big 14 assigns refs these days
Even early on, there was a clue this wasn't going to play out the way everyone but the accidental guests hoped it would. Mount's long-awaited return to Mackey should have been a a Boiler celebration, but instead the Hawkeyes rattled off the first six points of the game, as the offensive woes that plagued Purdue seemed to have bought tickets for yet another first half. My friend told me that all he wanted to see was something other than the usual stinky first half ... instead, it was 6-0, and as the Good Guys broke down on defense, Woodbury broke to the basket for an easy slam.
The ball had other ideas, flying off the rim into Vince Edwards' hands, and after a miss by the Captain, Edwards sank a three, and things looked pretty good for the moment. Iowa refused to bail, though, and after AJ dunked Purdue into an 11-10 lead, Jarrod Uthoff hit a three to put Iowa up 13-11.
The best of times
The Boilers then went on a 16-0 run that made me think perhaps my optimism wasn't so irrational after all. Dakota Mathias had a three, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal (plus a rebound that led to an assist on AJ's dunk at 11-10), and at that point, I thought it was possible he might also be helping out people to their seats and jump-starting dead batteries during media timeouts. Iowa would not string baskets together again in the first half, and after a late 8-0 run, the Boilers were up 19 and looking every bit like the type of team that made a championship appearance in 1969.
But they just couldn't push the lead to 20, and Uthoff hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 37-20 at the break. Uthoff had 16 (Woodbury and Peter Jok added 2 each), Iowa was shooting .233 from the field and .100 from three, and the only real signs of danger were that Purdue had missed their last three threes, hitting "just" 7 of 14 outside the arc, and Haas and Hammons combined for just 6 points. Surely Uthoff wouldn't continue to score at that pace, and at some point the Boilers would find their inside game, right?
The teams did trade scores early in the second half, and a Haas jumper kicked the Purdue lead back up to 17, 42-25, just before the 18-minute mark. Then ...
The worst of times
The lid came off the Hawkeyes' basket. They were hitting bad shots, good shots, contested shots ... but that alone wouldn't have been enough to reverse Purdue's fortunes. We'd seen the Good Guys hammer opponents in the second half from much worse situations into double-digit victories, so giving up a few baskets when you're up 17 isn't a big deal, right?
Unfortunately, as has been so often the case under Painter, the opposing coach figured something out at halftime. While they'd successfully neutralized Haas (who's had trouble making himself available for entry passes) and even Hammons (who hasn't) - think Patriots and defensive holding/DPI, and you've got the right idea - they hadn't been able to prevent Purdue from getting open looks from outside, which is something when you consider that most Boilers won't shoot a three if you give it to them.
Well, in the second half, McCaffrey had his guards start pressing. This isn't the old-school Iowa full-court press that had a Hawkeye big standing on the baseline (yes, literally - it made me so mad that they never called this in the '80s) and his teammates all over the Boilers in the backcourt, but rather the three-quarter-court trap that relies on the opposing guards not understanding how to break it.
By about the 8:00 mark in the second half, there were approximately 4000 people at our end of the arena - even the scattered Iowa fans there - who not only knew how to break the trap, but were actively encouraging the Boilers to do so. The one person who didn't seem to get it was the one in the suit on the Purdue sideline who seemed content to watch as the Boilers turned the ball over again and again. At the under-16 media timeout, Purdue had 4 turnovers. They finished with 14. Not all of them were caused by the trap, but enough of them were that we were screaming every time Hill or Thompson or Mathias would pick up their dribble as they tried to figure out what to do.
You might think it would be unwise to have just two guards trying to break a three-man press while the other three players waited patiently in the frontcourt for the offense to set up. You would be correct. You might also think that if you tried to break it this way, and you failed and failed and failed again, you would then change what you were doing. You, kind sir or madam, would not then be the head coach at Purdue, because that is not how things are done here. We do it our way, and if that doesn't work, we do it our way.
So Mathias and the point would pass the ball back and forth over the trap, steadily at first, but more shakily as time went on, and except for one possession where Painter had Biggie come nearly to halfcourt - on that possession IIRC Purdue beat the trap easily (SURPRISE) - no changes were made. I'm not sure I have the words to explain how terrible this was, but I'll give it a shot. At about the 11:00 mark, Purdue's win probability ($) was still around 95%: things were going poorly, but Purdue was up 8 and at home, and any reasonable situation would have them winning comfortably while McCaffrey cursed the first-half stretches that buried Iowa.
Instead, the final free throw by Jok capped a 50-point second half that buried Purdue, I guess. After Hill missed a layup and Nicholas Baer made one to push Iowa's lead to 7 with just over a minute remaining, a couple of young kids and an adult were patiently waiting for my friend and I to leave so they could follow us. My friend didn't take the hint, so he told the kids to go past us because we weren't leaving yet. An avalanche of Iowa free throws followed, and at that point, we joined the exodus.
As much credit as Uthoff (25 points, 4 boards, 5 blocks) and Iowa deserve, the blame for this has to fall squarely on Matt Painter's shoulders. Yes, the officiating was atrocious, but isn't it always? Yes, his bigs are being held every night in the post, but doesn't that mean you should maybe try to feed them farther out? (The few times they tried it, it actually worked fairly well, with a couple of early-game exceptions where the lid on the Purdue basket was tight as ever.) Yes, the refs stole Purdue's final timeout by stopping the game and insisting they heard someone call timeout during one of those failed trap breaks where the Purdue ballhandler gets just across halfcourt and picks up his dribble while his teammates stand around and watch, but why did Painter use two timeouts in a span of 3:12 that included a media timeout, leaving him with only one?
And, last but not least, why is it that a head coach can't give his players simple instructions when they are failing to break a press directly in front of him? Maybe it's worse than that - maybe Painter believes that he's done all he can do and the rest is up to his players. Wait - I forgot one more. Why is it that Purdue's trailing late in a game, but Painter doesn't have his best three-point shooters on the court?
OK, there's more. Why is it that Painter has drummed into his players that they must not take an open 3 at certain points in the offense? There were several possessions where either Hill or Thompson would pass up an open 3 so that they could pass around the perimeter for 15 more seconds, only for someone to take a contested shot that was worse than the 3. Sure, maybe that shot's outside Hill's range (he took only one three in non-conference play), but Thompson's put it up before, and he hits at a rate that makes it better than any 2 other than layups. And, as we've seen before, if you don't take outside shots, whether or not you make them, your defender gets to play off you, and guess what happens to your post players? They get no space.
Speaking of spacing, can we talk about the offense? Far too often, the guards leave poor passing lanes, which against a team like Iowa leads to transition baskets, especially when they don't have to worry about shots. (In contrast, part of Purdue's first-half success came from taking open 3s and making them, which forced Iowa to guard outside shots - sometimes frantically, which led to easy inside baskets. Mathias' feed to AJ in particular was a good one, because he passed up an open 3 when he saw the Hammonster waiting patiently underneath with an Iowa guy out of position.) Post guys are a little different, especially against a zone (you know how Purdue guards can't break zones). Biggie is good at establishing himself in the high post and then feeding AJ in the low post, but even then, there are times when he's almost too low, so there isn't a good angle to AJ and it results in a turnover.
It's true that it's early in the conference season, Iowa's actually looking pretty good so far (the win bumped them up to kenpom #12, as Purdue dropped two spots to #7), and the Big 14 still kind of looks like MSU/Purdue, Iowa/Maryland, IU/Michigan, and no one else that should trouble a quality team. But it's also true that prior to the Butler loss, the Boilers looked like a steamroller, and right now, it's easy to picture 12 coaches (Purdue does have to travel to Iowa City) working on trapping and zoning when the Good Guys are next on the schedule.
Up next is a Michigan team that is similar to Iowa, but with weaker defense. Up until conference play, they also looked a little unsettled at center, which against Purdue is like asking me to hold your cookies for you while you try to talk someone out of their Rick Mount bobblehead. However, Mark Donnal opened Big 14 play with two solid games ... sure, Illinois and Penn State are hardly contenders, but you play who's on your schedule, and any solid post play is going to put more pressure on Purdue's outside game, which as we have seen is not always a good thing.
What's worse is that Michigan's offense has been significantly more effective than Iowa's, in part because Caris LeVert is shooting .450 from three ... and is fourth on the team. (Duncan Robinson is 52 for 91. You don't have to do the math to know that that is good, but I'll tell you anyway: .571. His eFG% is basically "why do you let anyone else shoot?") If the Boilers can't get it going on offense, the Wolverines might well shoot them off the floor, whether or not LeVert is healthy enough to play. (He missed UM's win over Penn State today.)
Hold off the Wolverines, and Purdue should be 5-1 before their next semi-challenge, Ohio State in Mackey. Lose to Michigan, and it might be time to start waiting for a new AD. We know Burke has no interest in buying out anyone, and Painter seems like the time to coach out his contract, so the only way anything will change is if there's change at the top. Of course, if the next AD has the same rules that Burke does, then break out the whiskey and get comfortable, because if the almost-half-century since Mount has taught us anything about Purdue basketball, it's that there's always a way to lose a winnable game.