Life is hard on the bubble...and it's self-induced. Every day, major media outlets will say things like, "This team has some work left to do..." or worse, "That team still needs help to get in."
Last night, Purdue did itself a real favor by showing up in Champaign and playing basketball like they're capable of playing. We've talked about how important effort is for this team, but maybe more than effort, guys knowing their role, and accepting it goes a long way in defining a team's success.
|Everyone's gotta know their role|
Early in the season we saw position switches and nearly every possession was running through Hummel. Barlow was moved to the wing and thought that meant he should shoot a three every time he touched the ball. LewJack, TJohn and Byrd's injuries made them all look like they were out of sync and forcing the issue when they had the ball in their hands...on defense, they had a tough time keeping their man in front of them. Smith, while an effective/efficient three point shooter, was taking too many off-balance shots outside of the flow of the offense...oh yeah, and nobody was rebounding or hitting freethrows. Combine the last part with the fact that Purdue's team defense was struggling...and you have a formula for painful losses and general struggles like we haven't seen in West Lafantastica during Painter's time as head coach.
I'm not going to go as far as to say they've figured it out...or everything is clicking just yet...because it's not. But I will say, for the first time this season, this team is moving toward playing basketball like they're capable of playing.
Perhaps the ass-kicking at the hands of the Forehead's team at home was a bucket of ice water on their heads...or maybe having everyone able to practice is helping the team understand itself better...or maybe Smith's sticking his nose into a conflict on behalf of Barlow has brought these guys together. Regardless of the reason why, things are changing. And as attitudes and effort has changed, many guys have bought in, it seems.
I have no idea how Hummel's knees feel day-to-day at this point...nor do I know if he's feeling more confident in his injured knees...but he's playing with more confidence. The last three halves of basketball, he's been taking exceedingly-smart, makable shots and not drifting to the left as he had become accustomed to. Defensively, he's been a force as well while guarding taller, bigger players. It seems he's now playing the way his redefined physique is allowing him to play. While injured, Hummel got bigger and stronger...and for the first time this season, his strength is really making a difference...in the blocks and on the glass.
DJ Byrd has been playing with confidence on offense and fire on defense that's been contagious. He's hitting big shots when they're needed most and still selling out on the defensive end. In fact, the bigger, more-needed the shot, the more effect Byrd as been, of late. I think one of the big keys to his hot shooting though is the extra pass that's being made by his teammates following drives that cause the defense to contract. Byrd has been smart enough to find his spots...and drive and finish when the situation lends itself.
And speaking of driving and dishing, Barlow and LewJack are making everyone better on the offensive end. When Barlow gets that look in his eyes, everyone needs to look out...because something badass is about to happen. What is that look? It's pretty simple really...it's just a look of determination. Part of Barlow's appeal is the fact that he infuriates opponents. But, when he is playing an agitator without the focus on playing good basketball, it's pretty worthless. Conversely, when he's dialed in and resolute, very few in the league are better slashers or on-ball defenders. That's the Barlow we've seen recently...that's the one that's a difference-maker.
LewJack, when healthy or hurting, is a magician with the ball in his hands. He can change pace in a manner that few in the nation can stay with him...and defensively, when confident in his back, he's fearless and relentless. Now, this isn't a perfect world, and he's not 100%...but if other players are looking to score, whether it is Hummel, Byrd or TJohn, Jackson will generally find them...that's when Purdue's offense is humming.
Smith's defense last night helped keep two prolific scorers in check...and while Smith is capable of delivering daggers, the amount of shots he's taken lately has decreased, seemingly by his choice. How many times in the last few games has his pump fake led to an open jumper by Byrd? While shooters have to shoot, a bad shot doesn't help anyone, and Smith understands that. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets more open looks in coming games due to the emergence of Byrd and the re-emergence of Hummel.
TJohn has had an up and down season...but the general curve is upwards. One of the main reasons he's trending toward what many thought he'd become is he is working hard on defense and on the offensive end without the ball. Plus, once he has the ball, he's not just taking any three pointer that the defense gives him. Instead, he pierces the defense and goes after his high percentage, but unorthodox tear drop that is nearly impossible to stop when it's working.
Off the bench, Carroll has embraced the role of bodying up on defense, and blocking out to create lanes on offense. Lawson, while his minutes have been sparse is beginning to understand that without playing at a high energy level, his athleticism will go to waste. Marcius has provided a few valuable minutes and fouls as he's used his strength and size to give other players some rest...and AJ can still score at will; when he's patient and not trying to force the issue...he'll have games in the next few years that he takes over...but first, Painter wants his defensive effort to be consistent; and it's getting that way.
Every player has a role...and this team is finally embracing those roles and the system that creates them. And what do you know? Good things are starting to happen. But for Purdue to get into the tournament, they'll have to continue doing what they're doing. At least six games are remaining, three-plus wins will all but guarantee a chance to play in the real tourney...but to get in the big dance, our Boilers will need to continue to do the little things.