John Gasaway Knows Basketball Better Than Coaches

John Gasaway gets to work on his next article.

I happened to be browsing Twitter earlier today and I came across something interesting. And by interesting, I mean "fodder for Purdue fans to get irritated about."

T-Mill from H&R had said on another site that this year's Purdue basketball offense could actually wind up better than last year's. Naturally, simple-minded people took this to mean Travis was saying Purdue is better off without Rob Hummel. That's not really what he was saying and people with brains knew that, but that doesn't include everyone.

Big Ten Geeks said that Travis' comment was the craziest thing they'd heard all month. Then John Gasaway said it was the craziest Big Ten comment.... of the decade. Yes, he actually said that. The mere idea that Purdue might be better offensively this year than last year is the craziest thought....of the decade. Maybe Gasaway thinks of the decade as just having started with 2010 so there haven't been many crazy things said. I don't know.

Anyway, this leads us to a column Gasaway wrote for ESPN last week, cleverly hidden under the "Insider" shield. Fortunately, while we're not rich, our readers are and many of you who pay for ESPN content (and that's a whole other issue) provided us the content of that post, entitled "Purdue Boilermakers aren't a top-10 team." 

The content of that article is as follows:

The nice thing about having two major polls is that we can compare the thinking of college basketball writers (AP poll) with what Division I coaches (ESPN/USA Today) are seeing. So what do we find when we put these two preseason polls side by side? 

We find that the two groups of observers have remarkably similar opinions when it comes to ranking the nation's top teams. Whether you're parked behind a laptop along press row or pacing the floor in the coach's box, you're very likely to think that Duke is the best team in the nation. In fact, as we saw in last week's edition of "Poll Position," the writers and the coaches are in more or less complete agreement when it comes to identifying the top seven teams in the country.

And yet just outside that top seven, there's a team that the coaches and the writers clearly can't agree on: The Purdue Boilermakers, ranked a lofty No. 8 by the coaches, are ranked a more down-to-earth No. 14 by the writers. No other team in either poll's top 25 is the source of so much disagreement in terms of ranking. Who's right?

Sorry, coaches, but I have to side with my fellow writers on this one.

The first thing to understand here is the source of the disagreement: Robbie Hummel. Before Hummel suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 16, Purdue was widely held to be one of the top five teams in the nation. It's safe to say the Boilermakers wouldn't be the cause of this kind of polling divergence if head coach Matt Painter had a healthy Hummel in uniform.

In other words, the disagreement between the polls really comes down to a simple question: How important is Hummel to the Boilers? Unfortunately for Hummel and for fans of Purdue, we have some prior evidence close at hand for answering just this question. Last season Hummel tore the same ACL on Feb. 24 and, in effect, the Boilermakers played their last four conference games without him. (He played 12 minutes in the Minnesota game before his injury occurred.) You may remember Purdue then went on to play one of the ugliest games in recent college basketball history, a 69-42 loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. In that game Painter's team scored just 11 points in the first half. 

To their credit, the Boilers recovered from that loss, went on to make the Sweet 16 and even took eventual national champion Duke to the 30th minute of a closely played contest before eventually losing by 13. So I'm going to do Purdue an analytic favor. I'm going to ignore that Big Ten tournament game, which fairly screams "outlier," and instead look at the 250 regular-season possessions they played without Hummel after he injured his knee.

There's something about Robbie

Purdue's offense and defense, with and without Robbie Hummel, on a points-per-possession basis.
(Conference games only, 2009-10)

Purdue PPP Opp. PPP
With Hummel 1.08 0.97
Without Hummel 0.97 0.91

By the way, this table comes to us courtesy of an excellent new book that I highly recommend, one that has this to say about these after-Hummel figures:

You could just as well conclude from these numbers that Hummel is the only thing standing between Purdue and true defensive greatness, but for better or worse that's not my read. As I said at the time, I think Painter responded to Hummel's injury last February by more or less declaring the coaching equivalent of martial law. Offensive rebounds, to pick one example, were clearly banned outright by Painter post-Hummel. In effect, Purdue curled up into a tight defensive ball and did their level best to bleach offense out of each succeeding contest entirely.

In terms of our present question -- who's right, the coaches or the writers -- the conclusion I draw is that Painter, even though he's a coach, actually agrees with the writers. He thinks Hummel is really important, so much so that when Hummel is not there, Painter changes his team's whole approach. Who knows, maybe if JaJuan Johnson or E'Twaun Moore went down with an injury, Painter would react the same way. But what we do know is that in the past, Hummel's absence has had a specific and measurable impact.

Any discussion of how important a player is to his team is incomplete without asking the obvious question: Who's going to be getting those minutes instead? In the case of Purdue, the names that Painter brings up as candidates to inherit Hummel's possessions don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. 

Now, maybe that will change. Maybe one of the young Boilers will seize the moment and become a third scoring threat alongside Johnson and Moore. We are, after all, talking about a conference where a once-unheralded recruit like Northwestern's John Shurna emerged as a legitimate scoring threat after Kevin Coble suffered a season-ending injury last November. Stranger things have happened.

But that is my point: A strange thing like that does need to happen for the coaches to be correct and for Purdue to be considered a top-10 team without Hummel. Until that strange day comes, this writer's completely unbiased advice is to believe what writers are telling you about the Boilermakers.

So it's going to take "something strange" happening for Purdue to be a top 10 team? Really? Because they kind of already are. 

I'm not going to give this article the usual BS dissection because, frankly, I don't care that much. If John Gasaway thinks that this year's Purdue team -- with different personnel and the ability to prepare for a full season without Rob -- is no different from the shell-shocked team that lost one of their key guys in mid-February last year and had to adjust on the fly.... well, then he honestly doesn't know the first damn thing about college basketball.

Seriously. Is this clown honestly saying that Matt Painter is so lacking as a coach that a team that was a possible #1 team and widely-agreed national title contender is not even a top ten team any longer because of the loss of one guy?

How many teams in the nation have not one but TWO potential all-Americans who are seniors? Hard to think of any others, right?

As for Gasaway's posit that the thought that Purdue's offense might actually be better this season being the craziest thing he's read all decade, well....all we can say is this, John:

Let's get crazy.

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