Striking Gold: Purdue Beats Down Rutgers 89-54
It’s often the case the fans and pundits use the imperfect metric of “who have you beaten?” as a way of determining how good a team is. And in many ways, that does make sense. A highly ranked team, at this point in the season, has had to pass several tests most likely to get to where they are. And in beating them, maybe you show a glimmer of who you are as a team. Perhaps not where you are completely, but perhaps the Platonic ideal of what your team is and what they can accomplish.
But I dunno, there’s a fallacy in that logic - susceptible as I myself am to falling for it - that follows naturally from the game of basketball itself. And that is, any one game can swing in any number of directions based simply on the stochastic nature of the millions of variables that determine a game’s outline. This is what makes the NCAA Tournament so exciting. A team’s best player could have his girlfriend break up with him the night before (or, I dunno, have his back thrown out wrestling with his bench warmer roommate, as an example) and the probable outcome of the game changes entirely. Players either really “feel it”, or feel off, or the lighting is weird, the rims tight, there’s a dead spot on the court right by a shooter’s favorite spot, who knows. Things happen.
So perhaps it’s just as instructive to look at how a team handles teams that they should by all rights beat. While yes, the phenomena I described above applies but in the opposite direction, you can still learn lessons from how a team handles players a clearly inferior opponent. Do they jump out to an early lead? Do they stay calm when they don’t? Do they extend leads, go on runs, don’t allow momentum, step on the neck when needed? All those questions have squishy answers, but there are insights to be gained from looking at a game holistically, judging trends and patterns in the game, and making judgements on the quality of your team.
By that measure, Purdue showed us something important tonight against Rutgers. Rutgers is bad, no doubt, and show little actual signs of getting any better. So by all rights, Purdue should win, and should win big.
And win big they did. With a balance, attacking effort that left no question as to the relative place of these two teams in the college basketball landscape. We are starting to see something from this Purdue squad that we didn’t see a month ago, and this development bodes well for this team moving forward.
As much as I lamented the makeup of this squad - more precisely, the minutes distribution - credit is due where it is due, and Matt Painter deserves credit for swallowing his usual reticence for raw one-year-away talent and giving both Trevion Williams and Aaron Wheeler 22 minutes against Rutgers, continuing the recent pattern of doling out more and more responsibility onto each of their capable but rough around the edges shoulders. And those two rewarded their coach’s faith in them, with a combined 25 points and 18 rebounds.
That development, should it continue, speaks to a turning of the tide for this team this season. While yes, Grady Eifert is still starting while seemingly keeping the spot warm for either Williams or Wheeler (depending on how Painter wanted to structure his attack), most of the minutes are going to those two. Matt Haarms is still a riddle seemingly caught in a sophomore slump, but the depth has been increased, and so has the probability that on any given night, at least one of those guys will give the team what they need to get a win.
(This is ignoring Carsen Edwards, who was his usual great self, and Ryan Cline, who went 4-6 from distance, doing exactly that which Purdue absolutely requires from him.)
Special shouts to Sasha I-Have-To-Google-His-Name-Every-Time-Yet-It-Always-Looks-Wrong Stefanovic who poured in 14 points in 15 minutes while only missing one shot all night.
Purdue is looking a little less shaky heading into a rough three game stretch (home v. Indiana, @ Ohio State, home v. Michigan State). Those with a larger platform than I still have Purdue comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, but I’m not convinced, at least not yet. There’s still plenty of work left to do, but they at least look more capable of taking that on than they did a month ago.