Matt Painter’s Purdue Boilermakers have improved their level of play as the calendar turned to 2013 and Big Ten competition. They’ve played themselves on to the fringe of the NCAA tournament conversation. But to be playing the big tournament come March, they’ve got to win games like tonight’s match up with the Hoosiers at Mackey Arena.
Would it be an upset? Absolutely. Is it unlikely? Affirmative. Is it impossible? Nope.
In their three losses in Big Ten play, all to teams currently ranked in the top 13 of the country, they’ve been in the game until the second half. In road losses at Michigan and Michigan State, it wasn’t until midway through the second half that the Boilers lost touch. The Ohio State loss at Mackey saw Purdue hang in until the final minute.
Don’t expect tonight’s game to be any different. Mackey will be packed and rocking, even with a good dose of red sprinkled amongst the black and gold. What does the game plan need to look like for Purdue to spring the upset? Here’s a checklist:
Bombs away for Byrd
The two most impressive wins of the season for Purdue have been at Clemson and home to Illinois. In those two games, DJ Byrd has gone a combined 10 of 20 from three-point range. Byrd’s 131 attempts from deep on the year account for 46 percent of all three-point shots attempted by Purdue.
Indiana fans might hate to see so much zone played by Tom Crean’s team, but if there’s ever a team you want to zone-up in Big Ten play, it’s Purdue. Byrd is Purdue’s only legitimate threat to stretch the defense. If he’s hitting from outside, it opens driving lanes for the Johnson brothers.
Don’t forget this is Byrd’s last game against the Hoosiers at Mackey. Seniors tend to have great games in scenarios like this one.
Throw 20 feet of center at Zeller
Cody Zeller’s recent struggles from the floor have been well-documented by now. Yes, he finished strong on both ends of the floor in the final three minutes to secure the win against Michigan State. But, he struggled to finish through contact from a big body like Derrick Nix of the Spartans. If there’s one area where this Purdue team is deep, it’s in big guys who can bang on Zeller.
Expect to see some of AJ Hammons, Travis Carroll, and Sandi Marcius taking turns trying to wear down Zeller during the game. If the Hoosiers make it an open floor game, that trio has no shot of keeping up with Cody. I immediately flash back to a semi-state game between Danville and Washington in 2010 at Southport Fieldhouse, and Zeller owned Carroll on that afternoon. I don’t think Carroll’s gotten much quicker during that time. Purdue’s got to keep this game in the half court for their size to affect Zeller.
Lineup change at the right time
From the Penn State game forward, Purdue has played a smaller lineup. Jacob Lawson came out of the starting lineup, and Rapheal Davis entered, changing the dynamic of the starting five. It created more space for Hammons to operate in the post, created more space for anyone named Johnson to drive the lanes, and made Purdue more athletic defensively. In this game against the Hoosiers, that’s a must.
Simply looking at the forward match ups, I’m not sure which of Davis or Byrd draws Christian Watford or the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, Victor Oladipo. Either one would’ve been a bad fit for Lawson. Both Davis and Byrd can hang with Watford on the perimeter, and have the strength to stay with him in the low block, even if they’re sacrificing a couple of inches in height. Oladipo’s going to be a bear for either guy to stay with, but that’s pretty much the case for everybody in the country right now. I would think Byrd would try to match wits with Oladipo strictly based on three-plus years of Big Ten experience.
With all the things listed above, Indiana is still the better team. There’s a reason one team is in the top 5 in the country, and the other is trying to work their way into the NCAA tournament conversation. When these two rematch in Bloomington in mid-February, the Hoosiers will be the heavy favorite. They’re still the favorite tonight, but road games are never easy in the Big Ten. As much as the Boilers have to be on their game, the Paint Crew has to bring it as well.
Purdue has to hit some early shots, hope the Hoosiers have some early misses, and finding a way to get Cody Zeller in some early foul trouble wouldn’t hurt either. It could be a long night for Purdue. But it also has the potential to be a great night if some breaks fall the right way for the young Boilermakers.