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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Tuesday / March 20.
  • Purdue May Not Be The Best Team in The Country, But They’re Playing Like It

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    The college basketball season has been nothing but pure mayhem as there is no clear-cut number one team just a slew of good teams who haven’t separated themselves from the pack yet. The Big Ten, especially, has experienced a troublesome year as the conference ranks 5th in the KenPom conference standings, one of its worst showings in years.

    Ever since Miles Bridges announced he would be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans were the overwhelming Big Ten favorite heading into 2017-’18. Though Tom Izzo‘s bunch is still a member of the elite tier, there’s a chance they won’t be at the top of the conference when it’s all said and done thanks to the recent play of the Purdue Boilermakers.

    Expectations in West Lafayette lowered when Caleb Swanigan made it official he’d be taking his talents to the NBA. In his two years at Purdue, Swanigan averaged 14.4 points and 10.4 rebounds a game while leading his team to an outright Big Ten title and a Sweet 16 appearance as a sophomore. The Boilermakers ran its whole offense through Swanigan, and no one knew how this team would respond without their superstar big man at the head of things.

    In his 12 years manning the sidelines at Purdue, head coach Matt Painter has made the NCAA Tournament nine times, including three Sweet 16 berths. Painter’s teams have produced All-Americans such as Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, and Swanigan but he has yet to reach the Elite Eight, which has Boilermakers fans anxious about whether or not Painter will be able to take this program to new heights.

    Even with the departure of Swanigan, many anticipated Purdue would be good this year, but not at the level they have been performing as of late.

    At 16-2 overall and 5-0 in the Big Ten, the Boilermakers find themselves atop the conference along with Ohio State and have earned non-conference wins on the road at Marquette and on a neutral floor against Arizona. Purdue did go 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November, but their losses were at the hands of Tennessee and Western Kentucky, both KenPom top-60 teams who are respectable NCAA Tournament-caliber groups.

    Since the loss to the Hilltoppers, Purdue has won 12 straight games, seven of which have come against teams ranked in 81st or better according to KenPom.

    Though Swanigan took a good portion of the scoring with him to the league, returners from last year’s team have improved on their numbers from the previous season and have been able to pick up the slack.

    Spending the last two years manning the middle with Swanigan, Isaac Haas needed to be more consistent for the Boilermakers and find a way to stay out of foul trouble, something that has been restricting his productivity his whole career. Haas has never been one to play great minutes, but he’s made a significant impact this year averaging 14.8 points per game while shooting 63 percent from the field.

    At 7-foot-2, free throws always seemed to be a burden for Haas. But this year, as opponents have fouled him more, Haas is at a 78 percent clip from the charity stripe, a little under 24 percentage points higher than his freshman average. Haas has become a reliable contributor in that category, which was displayed in Tuesday’s victory at Michigan where he hit the front end of the one-and-one with four seconds left to give his team the lead and the win.

    “We know we lost a really good player [in Swanigan].” Painter said at Big Ten Media Day. “He brought a lot of mental and physical toughness to our team. I think for Haas to have a breakout year for us this year would really help [our team].”

    Haas doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting alone, as Purdue has 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman Matt Haarms playing at a high level. Unlike Swanigan and Haas, Haarms is more defensive oriented as his long build allows him to block shots and grab rebounds which is another reason why Haas has seen his foul rate decrease this year. Haarms also brings a lot of energy to the floor, sometimes a little too much, but he’s learning and has potential to become a valuable four-year player for the program.

    While Haas’ improvement has been noticed, another Boilermaker quietly has been immensely better than he was a year ago. Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards was the highest ranked recruit in Purdue’s 2016 recruiting class. In his freshman season, Edwards averaged 10.3 points per game but shot a miserable 36 percent from the field, and looked uncomfortable in certain situations.

    Playing for the USA this summer in the U19 FIBA World Cup in Egypt, Edwards fixed holes in his game playing with and against some of the best players from around the globe. In his second year at the college level, Edwards has seen his numbers and efficiency increase as he’s scoring 16.9 points per night and shooting the ball at a 48 percent rate, a vast growth from last season.

    Guys like Vincent Edwards and P.J. Thompson have also been vital to Purdue’s success this year. Edwards, a senior, at 6-foot-8 is a versatile forward who can do a little bit of everything. The leading rebounder for the Boilermakers at 8.4 per game, Edwards also is the team’s third-leading scorer at 13.8. Thompson, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is one of the best game managers at the college level at the point guard position. Known to be a pass-first guard, Thompson is shooting an incredible 51 percent from behind the arc. As a team, the Boilermakers are the 10th best 3-point shooting team in the country at a 41.6 percent clip.

    The most underrated player in the nation is 6-foot-4 guard Dakota Mathias. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Mathias guards the top scorer on the opposing team, and finds a way to score 13.3 points a night, dish out 4.6 assists and shoot 49 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep. What makes Mathias unique is his willingness to do anything for the good of the team. Barely a top-150 recruit coming out of high school, Mathias lacks top-notch athleticism but is one of the hardest workers and plays with a chip on his shoulder every game.

    “He is the perfect Purdue player,” ESPN’s Dan Dakich said of Mathias.

    The biggest concern for Painter is depth. First off the bench is Haarms, then junior sharpshooter Ryan Cline and freshman guard Nojel Eastern.

    Though a deep bench isn’t necessarily vital come March, one never knows when injuries may occur or players start to run out of gas. With the road game at Michigan out of the way, the Boilermakers biggest road test in the Big Ten comes Feb. 10 on the road against Michigan State.

    Though there is a real chance Purdue takes a tumble unexpectedly in one of these contests outside the Spartans, it’s reasonable to believe the Boilermakers will win their second straight Big Ten regular-season title. If the shots aren’t falling, that makes Purdue more vulnerable and gives opponents a higher chance of coming away with a victory and may put a wrench in their Big Ten championship hopes.

    In Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology, Purdue is a No. 3 seed in the South Region. With the win over the Wolverines, there’s a good chance the Boilermakers will be a No. 2 seed, maybe even No. 1 in other brackets.

    Purdue was given the opportunity this summer to represent the USA at World University Games. The Boilermakers were able to play eight games, which means they were essentially eight games ahead of every other school heading into the season. They won their first seven contests before falling to Lithuania in the Gold Medal Game. This trip showed, even without Swanigan, that this team could compete and be something special.

    Purdue has been nothing short of spectacular as of late. Everyone is buying into their role and finding ways to win ballgames. If they keep up this level of play, Matt Painter has all the pieces in place to achieve his first Elite Eight berth in West Lafayette.

    Photo: Purdue Sports

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