Guards over Bigs - Illinois Punishes Purdue
Matt Painter bet big when he decided that he would eschew both traditional basketball lineups (C/PF/SF/SG/PG) and current trends (small ball; everyone's a shooter) and double-down on the slow half court game that Purdue is known for, focusing the offense around a trio of bigs, each of whom could start for most college programs. That bet has paid off more often than not this year, but recent losses, in particular today's against Illinois, has exposed some fundamental flaws in that design. Illinois is led by two talented guards: Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. And it was upon the backs of those two guards that Illinois obliterated Purdue Sunday evening.
Purdue's problem is one of great imbalance; as talented as the bigs are on both offense and defense, major questions surround the rest of the team. Purdue has tried to maximize the talent on the floor by rotating Haas and Hammons at the 5 position, and putting Caleb Swanigan - who had always played as a 5 - at the 4, moving Vince Edwards to the 3, and Ray Davis to the 2. This shuffling as in effect created an off-by-one error, pushing players one step closer to the perimeter than they're used to.
This approach has been disastrous in stretches, its limitations out in full view in Champaign. Forcing Swanigan to guard athletic 4s that he lacks the lateral quickness to keep up with, or putting Vince Edwards on smaller, quicker 3s creates situations where Purdue is playing behind on defense, shifting players out of position as they try to recover against mismatches. This in turn affects Hammons' ability to stay at home in the post to anchor the defense. A team with good perimeter scorers can exploit these limitations to their advantage.
Similar effects are felt on offense. It's been an unfortunately common sight to see Swanigan and Haas or Hammons post up on the same side of the lane, their confusion ultimately resulting in a clogged lane and an ineffective offense. Additionally, that starting lineup contains no one who can shoot the three reliably, or score off the dribble. This allows opposing defenses to pack the paint as in years past, resulting in a sluggish start for the Boilers on offense. Early holes can be difficult to climb out of (like the 9-0 start within the first 100 seconds that Illinois had to begin the second half), and frankly, if Purdue's bigs aren't dominating, the offense is fairly toothless.
The compulsion to propose swift, drastic changes is there. And while I typically prefer to preach patience and adherence to the process, there's a nagging feeling that Purdue needs a dramatic change to fully realize its potential this season. Some thoughts:
- Matt Painter needs to think long and hard about putting Biggie or Vince on the bench to start the game in favor of Mathias (multi-tool offense) or Stephens (shooting). Two benefits: you get someone out there who can score in a different way than anyone else who's starting, and you have someone a little more capable of defending on the perimeter.
- Substitution patterns need more consistency. I'll readily acknowledge that Coach Painter has his fingers on the pulse of the team better than I, but for the life of me I can't figure out what he's doing at times. Against Iowa Stephens could not miss, and in response was benched. AJ sat on the bench for a large chunk of the second half against Illinois, as Purdue failed to stop Illinois' guards on defense and could not get anything going on offense. Hammons only had two fouls, and Purdue desperately needed his skills. Purdue probably would have lost either way, but during a crucial stretch of the game, its best player was no where to be found.
- Caleb Swanigan is Purdue's most talented player, but he's really struggling with his responsibilities right now. His good is very good (12 points and six rebounds) but his bad is hurting Purdue as well (five turnovers tonight; he's averaging 3.1 a game this season). I don't think his minutes need to be reduced necessarily, but Purdue needs to put him in the best position possible to be successful.
There's certainly cause for concern, but the world's not on fire yet. This was a bad, stupid loss, something that's inevitable in conference season but frustrating nonetheless. A 2-2 start to the conference season is not how anyone wanted conference season to go after finishing the non-conference slate 12-1. What Purdue does from here is more important than what happened tonight, but the things that caused Purdue to lose to Butler, Iowa, and now Illinois remain. It's up to Coach Painter and staff to fix it.