INDIANAPOLIS — Performances don’t get much more all-around terrific than the whooping Purdue put on Illinois on Friday.
The Boilermakers advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament with the 31-point win. But the way they played couldn’t help but make anyone watching wonder about the scenarios of advancement come the next tournament.
Purdue hasn’t been among the teams pegged as NCAA tournament favorites, and certainly that’s not without reason. The Boilers have been kind of a Jekyll-and-Hyde team throughout the year despite a strong record, a top-15 ranking and the No. 4 seed in this week’s conference tourney. Wins over top-10 teams like Michigan State and Maryland and a 91-point performance against Wisconsin were balanced out by blowing a huge lead in a home loss to Iowa and falling in four separate road conference games to Iowa, Michigan, Maryland and Indiana.
Surely, though, all along the Boilers have had what it takes, it was just a matter of everything clicking on the same day. Friday, that’s what happened. Purdue’s massive “skyline” of a front court combined for 37 points, the Boilers connected on 13 3-pointers and the Purdue defense absolutely smothered an Illinois team that couldn’t get anything going.
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It was a perfect display. And while that coming against a sub-.500 team doesn’t mean as much as it would if it comes Saturday against Michigan or Sunday in a Big Ten Tournament title game, it showed exactly how far this team could go once the Big Dance gets started.
“If they’re making 3s like that and they’re interior players play like that?” Illinois head coach John Groce posited after the game. “Obviously they’ve got multiple options. So sometimes in a one-game setting, if a guy gets in foul trouble, especially an interior player, most teams don’t have another guy like that. They do. And then they’ve got multiple shooters, it’s not just one guy.
“Obviously if they play the way they did today, they could beat about anybody.”
That “skyline” brings the most confidence, with A.J. Hammons an All-Big Ten First Team selection the best player on the court in almost any game he plays. Caleb Swanigan has been great lately, averaging 12.9 points over his last seven games and recording his first double-double since January in Friday’s win. Isaac Haas, well, that guy’s huge.
But it’s the shooters around them that perhaps make the biggest difference in Purdue’s ability to advance to the alliterative rounds of the NCAA tournament. If Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards and Ryan Cline and others are hitting 3s, the Boilers are practically unstoppable. Friday, they knocked down 13 of the 27 long balls they attempted, with those three guards making a combined eight of them.
“We got good looks. Made good decisions,” Rapheal Davis said. “(The big men) were being doubled, and they just passed it out. It makes a lot of sense when two people guard you, somebody has to be open. And guys were open, and guys make shots when they're open. And making shots like that allows you to get in the rhythm to make contested ones or lay ones in the shot clock. But our big play was today, and we just started sharing the ball and getting everybody a piece of it.”
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That deadly combination — not to mention the defense, as Hammons and Davis were named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team for the second straight season — could make Purdue as good as any team in the country, a statement that can’t sound crazy in this insane year for college hoops.
Friday we saw that combination in full effect, we saw the Boilers firing on all cylinders. There are potentially two more games this weekend to get Purdue warmed up for a March marathon. The Boilers already have a four-game winning streak. If Matt Painter’s crew can stay Jekyll and keep Hyde at bay, then it could be a very special season.
“I think we're playing well,” Mathias said. “We're playing harder. It's a big thing they stress to us every day in practice. Our offense is pulling a lot better. I think our guys were being more aggressive than they were maybe in the middle of the season at the beginning of Big Ten play. I was just making plays off the bounce individually and getting the other guys involved. I think when they get that flow going. Our defense feeds off that too, and we're tough to guard.”