Maui Wrap-Up and Looking Forward
Last year Purdue embarrassed themselves at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. First, they had a very poor half against #5 Oklahoma State, played well enough in the second half to make it interesting, but ultimately was unable to come away with the win. That team proved itself to be some combination of mentally soft and immature, as evident by the technical foul and the flagrant foul plus ejection by Ronnie Johnson and Jay Simpson, respectively, followed by an inexcusable beating at the hands of Washington State in the next game.
The year prior was much worse in a way. First of all, that team started the season with a loss to Bucknell (ouch), then consecutive losses to Villanova and Oregon State in the 2k Sports Classic in New York. The Villanova game was tough to watch, as Purdue let a late lead slip through their fingers with a little help from what appeared to be poor officiating. That game went into overtime, where Villanova eventually got the win. The next game was against a very beatable Oregon State squad, but I suppose "beatable" is relative when you're talking about a Purdue team that would finish the season 16-18.
So you'll forgive Purdue fans if the first half of the Kansas State appeared to indicate the continuation of a trend. Purdue played horrid basketball in the first half, turning the ball over a mind-numbing 11 teams, which fed right into Kansas State's strength. They were able to convert those turnovers to points AND get AJ Hammons into foul trouble. A spirited second half wasn't enough, and Purdue walked away with their first loss of the season.
But then something awesome happened. Instead of a letdown in the second game against a beatable opponent - like Purdue had done in the previous two years - Purdue beats the bricks off Missouri. THAT got my attention.
Just as tough losses and lead to let-downs in subsequent games, big wins can do the same, which is why I approached the BYU game with trepidation. BYU is a legitimate NCAA Tournament team, featuring their conference's POY from last season. A loss would be understandable, but a win would be invaluable. Especially if we think this team has a shot at the Tournament come year's end.
It was a tough game - BYU sure can score - but in OT, Purdue pulled it out on a great AJ Hammons turn-around with 1.8 seconds left. Purdue left Maui with a win, finishing the Maui Invitational 2-1. I view it as a success.
Now we get the opportunity to see if this team can carry that momentum forward. The non-conference schedule for Purdue has its rough marks; if Purdue wants to put up a few resume-builders against other high major opponents, those opportunities will present themselves with the N.C. State, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame games, before the conference season begins on New Years Eve.
I don't think this team is a sure-fire NCAA Tournament team yet; there is still plenty of work to do. While the Big 10 is tough again this year (probably the toughest conference top-to-bottom; well, maybe not "bottom", as Rutgers looks absolutely awful), the ACC, Big East, and Big-12 (and possibly the Pac-12) all look improved this season. NCAA Tournament bids will come at a premium, and it won't quite be enough just to break the 20 win mark.
But those are the expectations, and provided that youth and injuries don't in some way bite this team, they should be able to meet those expectations. But they'll have to shore up a couple things first.
Purdue won the games it did in Maui because of their collective free throw shooting. Ray Davis comes to mind, but Vince Edwards also did a great job nailing his free throws when they were needed. However, as the season goes on Purdue's bigs are going to be the ones shouldering more and more of the free throw burden, as the teams with less skill in the frontcourt struggle to keep up with them. Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons combined to go 17 for 29 in Maui. The more efficient those two are on the glass, the more painful it will be for the other team when they are forced to foul Purdue's 7-footers
This is a big one, and one that is still a problem for Purdue. The Boilermakers committed 11 turnovers in the first half against Kansas State, a horrid showing that ultimately drove them out of the game. They only had two turnovers in the second half of that game, on of the main reasons why Purdue was able to out-play KSU in the final 20 minutes. But the three games in Maui produced turnover percentages of 19.4%, 23.5%, and 21.5%. That needs to be improved as Purdue works their way to conference season.
There aren't a ton of team - even high major teams - that can match Purdue's combination of size and skill. But one way a smaller team can neutralize Purdue's advantage in that regard is by getting Purdue's bigs in foul trouble, something Kansas State was especially good at. Hammons is a natural shot-blocker, and he changes the whole tenor of an opposing offense when he's on the court. Purdue's bigs getting in foul trouble - coupled with Matt Painter's insistence on not playing a guy with two fouls in the first half - forces Purdue to change everything it wants to do on defense (and exposes some defensive weaknesses on the wing). It'll be critical for Hammons and Haas to play smart and stay out of foul trouble.
The season is off to a good start. N.C. State presents an unique challenge for the Boilermakers, as they are one of the more athletic teams Purdue will face. It'll also provide an opportunity for Cat Barber and Bryson Scott to play against each other once again; the last time these faced each other, Scott did a great job locking Barber down during the Peach Jam several summers ago. It'll be a nice opportunity for these Boilers to make a little more noise and give a little more credence to the claim that they are an NCAA Tournament quality team.