MATH TIME: Purdue Needs Its Junior Class (Haas, Vince, Mathias) To Make The Second Weekend
THE TOURNEY IS UPON US. Tomorrow, Purdue’s best team since the Baby Boilers starts a tournament run that will define Matt Painter’s future in West Lafayette.
No, he won’t be fired, even with a third straight first-round loss. (We at BS might not be as kind as the athletic department in that scenario.) But after a season that produced an explosive offense, an outright Big Ten regular season title, and five-star sophomore Caleb Swanigan securing the Big Ten Player of the Year and finalist for National Player of the Year, the only knock on Purdue’s potential under Painter remains the repeated collapses in March.
Two years of peak AJ Hammons and Rapheal Davis were wasted with consecutive first-round overtime collapses. Purdue held leads versus Cincinnati (8 points with 49 seconds left) and Arkansas-Little Rock (13 points with 3 minutes left), collapsed, we all yelled obscenities and threw TVs into various bodies of water.
With a deep tournament run this year (read: Elite Eight), Matt Painter will be able to tell every five-star recruit that major conference dominance, national acclaim, March Madness success, and NBA attention is possible at Purdue. Us cranky fans will be satisfied, the athletic department will be swimming in praise, Pete will be terrorizing helpless viewers everywhere, and all will be right in the world.
But another early exit? Woo boy, will things be rocky. Recruiting against Painter will be easy. “Want to play for a coach that won’t fall apart every March? Go anywhere but Purdue.” The ceiling on Painter’s Purdue career will be established: a couple of conference titles and the Sweet 16 every now and then when things break juuuust right is about it.
A NPOY candidate surrounded by deadeye shooters and a 7’2” sixth man, with as friendly of a draw you’ll see for a dreaded 4/5 seed. If not this year, when?
The common refrain among wise national pundits is that Purdue’s guards will determine its fate. I’m here to tell you that it’s not Purdue’s guards, or even Biggie Swanigan, that will dictate how we feel about Coach Painter going forward.
Purdue’s season will depend on the core of Purdue’s junior class. Isaac Haas, Vince(nt) Edwards, and Dakota Mathias need to perform if Purdue hopes to dispel its reputation of choking in March.
Purdue’s great defensive metrics are dependent on two things: Swanigan vacuuming up every single defensive rebound in his orbit, and a Mathias-driven conservative perimeter defense that guides the opposition to launch long jumpers.
The real calling card for this year’s Boilermakers has been offensive efficiency and consistency. So, let’s look at the offensive rating (ORtg, total points created by a player, per 100 possessions) of Purdue’s eight -man rotation.
Caleb Swanigan is basically perfect. His worst (meaningful) game was versus Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, where he posted 13 points on 5/13 shooting, 13 rebounds, 5 assists/4 turnovers, and an ORtg of 88. If Purdue stops iso-Biggie’ing the final possession of close games, I don’t think we’ll ever have to worry about his consistency in the tourney.
The same holds true for PJ Thompson. The only truly below average (meaningful) game from PJ came at IU (5 points on 1/4 shooting, 0 assists/1 turnover, 76 ORtg). He’s been incredibly consistent all year, allowing Purdue to count on 30 minutes of very good point guard play every single night.
Ryan Cline’s role remains spotting up in the corner and getting dissected on defense, and Spike Albrecht (mostly) qualifies as a functional human wearing a jersey for 10 minutes per game.
Carsen Edwards is Purdue’s irrational wild-card, a boom-or-bust catalyst that can take Purdue over the top (at IU, at MSU, at Illinois), but his ORtg doesn’t match up very well with Purdue’s win/loss record (look at his good games during the Iowa, Nebraska, and both Michigan losses). We could discuss Carsen’s fluctuating role for hours, but the takeaway remains the same: he’s not a key predictor of Purdue’s success.
That leaves the three key juniors: Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards, and Dakota Mathias.
By focusing on the 14 games when Purdue either lost or when Kenpom rates Purdue’s overall offensive performance poorly, we can get a better look at what needs to happen for Purdue to succeed in close, hotly contested games (otherwise known as March Madness, brought to you by PeptoWhiskey):
The gold line is an ORtg of 90, generally accepted as the breaking point for a decent individual offensive game. Only 2 of Purdue’s 7 losses (and 14 total close games) featured great offensive games from all three players:
- At Michigan – Offense didn’t kill Purdue, Mo Wagner’s jump shot killed Purdue.
- At Iowa – holy Peter Jok game.
Close games happen when 2/3 of that Purdue junior trio are offensively lackluster. On the flip side, Purdue wins every close game when two of Haas/Vince/Mathias play well. The single exception to this 2/3 Junior rule: the one point win at Maryland, where Ryan Cline’s brilliance pushed Purdue over the top despite bad showings from Haas and Vince.
Some bullet-point rambling notes for each player, particularly with the matchups against undersized Vermont, Iowa State, or Nevada during opening weekend:
- Of the 14 close/sloppy games Purdue has logged, Haas has been excellent in only two (the B10 Tourney game against Michigan, vs Villanova), and solid in two (at Penn State, at Iowa). He was bad, or had his minutes limited by foul trouble, in the rest of this sample.
- There is some “WTF Painter” to blame with Haas, since a few of his great games saw him play extremely limited minutes. Only 15 minutes against Michigan in the BTT and only 13 minutes at Nebraska is inexcusable.
- Foul trouble will be huge for Purdue’s gargantuan 6th man. Whenever Haas is on the floor, his usage rate is astronomical (32% of Purdue’s possessions when Haas is on the floor result in a shot attempt or drawn foul by big Isaac). Regardless of who else is on the floor, the offense flows through Haas during his minutes off the bench. Purdue can’t afford to see “trainer-forgot-to-attach-his-limbs” Haas this week.
- Size is obviously Purdue’s calling card during the Hammons-Haas-Swanigan era. This gives Painter two potential ways to attack Vermont, Iowa State, or Nevada’s lack of size:
1) Minimize overlap of Haas and Swanigan, especially if the shooters are going. This puts pressure on those teams’ undersized front lines with a constantly fresh pair of legs in the paint, but necessitates that every minute Haas plays is highly productive. As Matt Norlander of CBSSports pointed out, Painter never plays all three of Vince/Swanigan/Haas anymore, and this is a huge reason why.
2) Attack with both Swanigan and Haas, and counter opposing runs with smaller lineups. The downside of this: *massive* minutes for Swanigan that might result in him being a mortal human and getting gassed during late-game stretches, particularly if Purdue makes the second weekend. This does, however, relieve Haas’ burden if he doesn’t have his offensive game going.
Method #1 is my preferred rotation, but it really depends on Isaac Haas being excellent for 20 solid minutes in a high-pressure tourney environment. We’ll see if he steps up.
- Vince’s only bad nights in this close/sloppy game sample were at Maryland, at Nebraska, and his no-show at Louisville. He’s been either good or great in the rest of those competitive games, which is a great sign for Purdue.
- The metrics love Vince this season, but then again the metrics always love Vince stuffing the stat sheet with a low usage rate. Remember this, as you read the next bullet points: Vince is very very good, and has been very very good since the moment he got to West Lafayette.
- Vince almost never puts together two consecutive halves of excellent offensive basketball. This has been a source of frustration for Purdue fans for the past two seasons. He’ll float for long stretches, then do something incredible that reminds you that he’s both in the game and basically has a peak-Robbie Hummel skillset.
- Vince should be better than he is defensively, but he’s not, he’s pretty mediocre, and it’s very perplexing.
- Out of these three juniors, Purdue’s win margin correlates best with Vince’s ORtg, with three exceptions: at Michigan and at Iowa (damn you, Wagner and Jok), and vs Minnesota (where both Haas and Mathias were awful). Vince is Purdue’s barometer, and after last season’s collapse vs UALR I’d be stunned if we saw floaty-Vince in the tournament again.
- Dakota’s bad nights (BTT Michigan, at IU, vs Nova) have all been very similar: 3 points in each, bricking everything from distance, few assists, and eventually viewers forgetting that he’s on the court.
- Mathias’ defensive improvement was sudden but very much needed. We all thought the Ray Davis defensive spot would be filled by Basil Smotherman, but Mathias has embodied Purdue’s very smart (at times) defense. The biggest issue on that end of the floor remains athletic guards and shooting forwards, but wings have presented Purdue with very few issues this year.
- Mathias’ floor vision opens up the entire halfcourt offense. When he hits PJ and Cline for corner threes, defenses are on their heels and start to play passing lanes…which means they forget Mathias is an absurd 46% three-point shooter. When teams have to close out hard on Mathias and are scared to leave the corners, Swanigan/Haas are single covered in the post, and it’s easy money for the good guys.
- 6 of Purdue’s 7 losses have come when Mathias shot under 33%. This figure, along with Vince’s efficiency, is what Purdue fans should be watching.
All in all, Purdue has a favorable draw for a 4-seed, two extremely consistent starters (Swanigan and Thompson), and three-point shooting across the board to go far this March. It’s the junior trio of Haas, Vince, and Mathias, however, that will determine whether that on-paper dream will finally become a reality.
See you all tomorrow night. I’ll bring the Pepto.