Wisconsin's opponent Wednesday night at the Kohl Center recently reversed a three-game losing skid with back-to-back victories to open conference play. But despite wins over what looked like a fairly good Minnesota team and the artist formerly known as "Michigan," we don't really know who Purdue is yet.
The Boilermakers (10-5, 2-0 Big Ten) have been bad at times, and really bad at others, losing to both North Florida and Gardner Webb at home. But they've also picked up some decent wins and always play Wisconsin tough. In fact, Bo Ryan is only 10-10 in his career against Purdue.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter is playing a host of new faces this year, including Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus at point guard and one of the biggest humans I've ever seen in freshman Isaac Haas.
Who are these guys? Once again we turn to the venerable T-Mill, Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails, for the answers we seek.
B5Q: After a really up-and-down non-conference slate, Purdue has started out surprisingly strong in Big Ten play. Therefore, Boilermaker fans might have the best perspective on whether the league really is in trouble, based on what you saw from Minnesota and Michigan. Or is Purdue just going through a bipolar phase?
Hammer and Rails (Travis): I think we’re a bipolar team. There is a chance that Gardner Webb is a decent Big South team that will win their league and be a nasty 15 seed in March because their RPI is still semi-respectable, but the North Florida game was Purdue doing just barely enough to win then falling completely apart in the final three minutes. We were up 7 with 3:11 left then everything that could go wrong, did.
I still think this team can do a little damage in the Big Ten, mostly because everyone outside of Maryland and you guys looked pretty flawed during the non-conference. We had a good Maui trip even if the Kansas State loss doesn’t look too good right now. We’ll likely get points for at least playing Vandy on the road and Notre Dame, well, the second half was just about the worst half of basketball a Painter team has played.
After going 8-5 I said we needed to go 12-6 in the Big Ten to have a realistic NCAA chance. Well, two down, 10 to go. The Purdue that played in the second half of the last two games can certainly win 10 more. The Purdue that played against Notre Dame or North Florida will be lucky to beat Rutgers.
B5Q: Purdue is blessed with two huge, capable centers. Now, some dudes look tall; freshman Isaac Haas looks like a giant -- maybe even a giant Ivan Drago. He's been starting over A.J. Hammons, though Hammons still gets the bulk of the minutes. Is this a motivational technique or a legitimate platoon? How are they handling their roles?
H&R: I think it is a little of both. Haas played really well to start the year, better than Hammons in fact. Hammons didn’t get going until hitting the game-winner against BYU out in Maui. Haas still gets into foul trouble quite easily and as was seen against Michigan, he sometimes gets called for fouls just because he is so big. Spike Albrecht was stupid enough to run directly at him and Haas was called for the foul even though he was straight up.
Hammons is starting to finally play like a legitimate NBA center and Haas allows him to both rest and be a little more aggressive since we can finally replace size with size. Haas is slumping a little bit, but is still going to be an excellent player in his own right.
B5Q: Matt Painter has transitioned from the Johnson boys and heavy doses of Bryson Scott and Basil Smotherman last year to rolling with transfer Jon Octeus and new freshmen. Can you sense whether team chemistry is better this season just by watching?
H&R: It is night and day better. Last year we looked like we didn’t even like each other at times. Now we can at least some of the struggles to youth since Octeus is the lone senior. When four freshmen are playing major minutes you’re going to struggle at times. Even the Baby Boilers lost to Wofford.
Octeus has been a fantastic pickup because he is an old school Purdue player. He is selfless, but a calm presence that loves to play defense and can score going to the basket. He has the right attitude and even though he is only with us one year, he came in and immediately felt like he had been there four. Scott and Smotherman still play, with Scott being a little erratic in his play. For the most part everyone is on the same page for the first time in three years.
B5Q: How "for real" is Vince Edwards? Are there any recent Boilers you can compare the freshman swingman to?
H&R: Edwards is going to be a special player. Right now he is kind of picking his spots and playing well on the offensive glass to get some baskets, but in the second half against Michigan he started to take advantage of his size mismatch because of the Haas/Hammons combo. He can also step out and hit the three from time to time, but he hasn’t done too much of that yet.
I really don’t have anyone I can compare him to except maybe a more raw Robbie Hummel who doesn’t have the same perimeter game. I think he can develop into a stretch four or a three that can punish other threes with his size. He is not quite assertive enough yet, but he will be, especially the longer we have the Haas/Hammons duo to create mismatches.
B5Q: Where does Purdue go on offense when it has to get a bucket?
H&R: That is really the question. There isn’t a "Red Button" as in "Hit the red button for instant offense." That was the nickname I gave E’Twaun Moore during his time and it was earned. Right now Kendall Stephens has hit some big baskets, while Octeus and Rapheal Davis have been good about driving and either scoring or getting to the line. Other than that, we chuck it into Hammons/Haas and let them make a move.
B5Q: Purdue used to be one of the fiercest defensive teams in the country from year-to-year under Painter, but hasn't been intimidating at all since JaJuan Johnson graduated. What's your theory for why the defense has fallen off? Any signs of it developing down the road again?
H&R: I think it is attitude. In the second half of the last two games Purdue finally played a little angry and started to look like itself again from a defensive perspective. That proper attitude has not always been there and it is frustrating to see it, then see it go again. We let Gardner-Freaking-Webb score 87 on our home floor for crying out loud. Hopefully they decided enough is enough and got things righted at the end of the Minnesota game because we looked like ourselves again in those last eight minutes during the comeback.
B5Q: Any bold predictions for Wednesday night?
H&R: I think it will be a little closer than some expect mostly because Painter’s teams have played strangely well in Madison. He has won there three times and lost by 6 in 2014, 7 in 2011, 7 in 2010, and 5 in 2007. I don’t know, but we’re not afraid of the Kohl Center. I can’t explain it at all because we had no business being in that game last year in Madison, but we were. Then you had 2013, where out of nowhere we actually won, so who knows.
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