(Attempt #2. Mental note: always save your work, just in case you click the wrong stupid button on your mouse and your browser happily leaves the page you were on.)
Yes, I know, non-conference play isn't quite over yet, but Maryland-Eastern Shore is the kind of school you schedule to add a W to your record and to let you experiment before conference play begins. As we all know, Coach Painter is fond of experimenting – sometimes to a fault – so I think I can go ahead and take a look back at games past without missing vital information from tomorrow's game … it won't tell us anything we don't already know. (Unfortunately, the West Virginia game probably also won't tell us anything we don't already know.)
In our Popular Preseason Predicto, the consensus was that Purdue would be somewhere between an NIT entrant and a second-round* NCAA team. kenpom's preseason ratings agreed with us, slotting the Boilers at #30, high enough to make the tournament easily, but low enough to temper expectations once there. Since the opening nailbiter against Northern Kentucky, the Boilers dropped after virtually every game, bottoming out at #112 prior to the second Siena game. After whipping the Eagles in the ACC-Big Ten challenge and holding off the Eagles** before finals, they rose to #85. Unfortunately, Butler's having what amounts to an off year for them (ouch), so the close neutral-site loss dropped Purdue to #87 … still within our range, but that's NIT territory. NCAA at-large bids don't come to teams outside the 60s.
kenpom provides a nice year-by-year summary*** of important team-level stats for each school, so I'll use that to take a look at a few things that stand out so far this season and what that might mean for conference play.
Note: in the first three charts below, the middle of the chart is roughly the NCAA average for that stat. The graph then extends in both directions to cover all Big Ten teams. That should give you a visual idea as to where the teams stand with respect to each other and other conferences. In the last chart, adjusted defense, because all Big Ten teams are above average (insert Prairie Home Companion joke here), the bottom of the chart is NCAA average, so the graph basically represents the top half of NCAA teams (because OSU is #1 in adjusted defense). I also flipped the scale and moved the X axis to give the graph the same relative look: a taller bar is better, even though in this case, smaller numbers are better.
Adjusted tempo: 72.4 possessions per game, 2nd in Big Ten, 29th in NCAA
Run, rabbit, run. Dig that hole, forget the sun. And when at last the work is done … aw, heck. With this team, that work will never be done. (See next section.) Purdue teams in the kenpom era have historically not been running teams: with the exception of the 2002-03 Keady team, tempo has varied from glacial (Keady's last two years) to slightly above average (2007-08). There's a pretty clear divide in the conference between the rabbits (Indiana at 73.1, Purdue, then Iowa at 71.7) and the turtles (Minnesota, at 66.6, is the fastest-paced offense of the bottom six) … and Purdue's offense isn't good enough to win the type of game the turtles like to run, so to break even in conference play and steal a low NCAA spot, the Boilers will have to keep on running.
What needs to change: Nothing. Get as many cheap points as you can.
Assists/made FG: 47.4%, 9th in Big Ten, 246th in NCAA
There are two types of teams that run: the type that runs because they can, and the type that runs because they have to. Iowa is an example of the former: with an assist on 59.8% of made baskets, they'll work the ball fairly well in a half-court set, but also get it downcourt quickly if you aren't back in time. (Big Ten teams with better A/FG%: Michigan State (makes sense) and Northwestern (??).)
Purdue, however, does not have that ability, at least not consistently. As the Swamy has aptly pointed out, Purdue has struggled at times to generate half-court offense, and with 4 of the top 25 defenses in the Big Ten (OSU, MSU, Wisconsin, and IU), that's unlikely to change in conference play. Just like that 2002-03 squad, this team is probably going to have to run to get open looks … and unlike that squad, this one will be even more reliant on getting them. (See the next section. It's like foreshadowing! Except you already know what I'm going to say.)
What needs to change: AJ has to earn more playing time. AJ and Basil Smotherman are the only two Boilers with a solid eFG%, and without a consistent post game, Purdue has to settle for jump shots. According to hoop-math.com, the average DI team hits 35.7% from two-point range but not at the rim. That's … not really productive, especially considering that the average team hits 60.9% at the rim. AJ is 18-20 there, Basil is 18-21, Errick Peck is 15-18, and Jay Simpson is 19-27. Getting those opportunities means fewer jump shots from Peck (18.8% outside the rim, but inside three) and Simpson (32.4%), and hopefully more opportunities for the perimeter guys.
The other issue is shot selection in transition (hoop-math counts transition shots as shots in the first 10 seconds of a possession that starts with a steal, defensive rebound, or made opponent basket). Ronnie is 2-9 on transition jumpers, Bryson Scott 3-10. Purdue as a whole is 10-38, and I don't need to do the math to know that that's a baaad number. If you're hitting 37.7% from three and 54.2% at the rim, the shot you should not be taking is "anything not listed above". Too many pull-up twos that catch iron.
FT%: 64.9%, 12th in Big Ten, 286th in NCAA
Two of these things are not like the others
When Purdue wasn't shooting well from the line under Painter at first, we thought "well, it's probably just this class." Then Robbie arrived, and the guys around him were shooting pretty well, too, and it definitely made those first three years look like aberrations.
But the 2011-12 team shot 65.6% from the line, and that was with Robbie shooting 82.5%. The next season was worse (65.3%), and this season's team is hitting just 64.9% from the line, which is bad enough in general and even worse given the new rules. No one is hitting 75% or better, and only Bryson Scott (74.1%) and Ronnie Johnson (70.8%) are better than the team average. It's fair to question exactly how much players can improve a skill that's purely repetition, but there hasn't been a Big Ten program with this kind of problem from the line since Bruce Weber's early years at Illinois, when they shot as poorly as 60.8% one season and finished 16-19 that year. (I guess the Bill Carmody era had teams like that, but that's Northwestern.) Otto Osenieks is shooting 69.6% … and he's the worst free-throw shooter on Minnesota's team.
The one bright spot is that the guy who's drawing the most fouls, Bryson (at a ridiculous 8.3 per 40 minutes, 14th in NCAA), is also the best foul shooter. The problem will come when guys like Terone (56.9%) and AJ (61.9%) are put on the line.
If you can't coach free throws, you've got to recruit players who can make them. If you can't coach them and can't recruit them, then you're going to have to build an offense that can put extra points on the board early to make up for what they'll lose at the line. If you can't do any of those, you're kind of stuck.
What needs to change: Rules regarding where you have to shoot free throws from.
Adjusted defense: 100.5, 11th in Big Ten, 110th in NCAA
On the surface, that doesn't seem too bad. 100.5 points allowed per defensive possesions, adjusted for things like quality of opponent, site of game, and stuff. And overall, it's not bad. 110th is still the top third of DI teams. It's just that historically, Purdue's been much better than that. Five straight years of top-20 defense under Painter, two years under Keady … sure, the 2011-12 team struggled (99.1, but 125th), but last year's team rebounded nicely – pun intended.
Purdue's allowing opponents to pull down offensive rebounds at a 35.4% clip, 285th in the country. It's really hard to sustain your defensive intensity when you're giving up second and third chances, especially if those are the at-the-rim chances that send a team's FG% skyward. Purdue's back to forcing turnovers at a good rate again (20.1%, 86th), but until they close down the offensive boards, their defense is going to suffer, and with a mediocre offense in a conference with excellent defenses, Purdue is going to be giving up points they can't afford to allow.
What needs to change: Defensive rebounding. Of course the problem is that to hit the glass, you have to commit more bodies, and more bodies on the defensive glass means fewer people heading upcourt in transition. AJ can't get all the rebounds himself, either, not even if he played all 40 minutes. So Painter may have to pick his poison: rebound at the defensive end and wind up in more unproductive halfcourt possessions, or keep the rabbits out high and give up easy second-chance points.
Not so good. A team with NCAA aspirations would have beaten both Washington State and Butler; in the grind that is the Big Ten schedule, a team hovering in the 80s is going to get bludgeoned on the road and struggle even to win home games. kenpom favors the Boilers in only three games – home to Nebraska, Penn State, and Northwestern – and figures they'll pull out three more wins, good enough for a 6-12 conference mark and another sub-.500 record. A finish like that will probably have the CBI selection committee putting Morgan Burke's cell on speed dial. To sneak into the Dance, the Boilers will have to steal more than just the corresponding road games against the teams above (thankfully, Purdue does play each of those teams twice; Iowa and Michigan State are two of the teams the Boilers face just once), and to do that, the coaching staff will have to work on fixing some of these problems. Purdue's just not playing good enough basketball to threaten the top half of the conference.
*The NCAA likes to mislabel things to disguise their true nature. Homie don't play that way.
**Different teams, of course. We're not talking about, say, Randy Meisner vs. Timothy B. Schmit here.
***subscription required. Totally worth it, though, if you enjoy looking up things like "which team gets the highest percentage of their points at the line?" (Answer: UT-San Antonio.)