Boilers surging as conference play heats up
By Michael Osipoff 648-3137 or firstname.lastname@example.org January 22, 2013 9:08PM
Purdue's A.J. Hammons dunks against Nebraska in the first half of their NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
The Big Number
Purdue’s defense is allowing 29.7 percent shooting in its last three games, with Nebraska’s 33.3 percent the high-water mark in the Boilermakers’ win streak.
Purdue was able to build and maintain a considerable lead against West Virginia, after seeing a 20-point lead dwindle to five at Nebraska.
“It was good for us to face adversity,” Matt Painter said. “… As a coach, you don’t want to get in those situations, but after the fact, you love being in those situations so you can get out of them and have a positive moment. Those type of moments build confidence for your team.”
Updated: February 24, 2013 6:36AM
For the first time this season, Purdue stands two games over .500. For the second time this season, the Boilermakers (10-8, 3-2 Big Ten) have won three straight games.
They’re not turning cartwheels over beating Penn State at Mackey Arena, Nebraska on the road and West Virginia at home; that’s two lower-division conference teams (quite possibly the two worst), and a team that clearly has been having tons of trouble scoring, if one that still plays hard. But there’s no question they’re a different, improved team from the one they were a month-plus ago, having won six of their last eight games since back-to-back losses at Eastern Michigan and to Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 15.
“It’s just been the consistency both in rebounding and our defensive assignments,” senior swingman D.J. Byrd said on Tuesday. “We can’t have breakdowns. Early in the season, some of the games we lost were just on us — mental mistakes and our breakdowns, our turnovers. But we’ve been focusing a lot more on the game plan and what we need to do defensively, while keeping the effort and the rebounding as constants.”
The Boilermakers’ average margin of victory during their streak is 18.0 points.
“It builds a lot of confidence going into these next games,” junior guard Terone Johnson said after Purdue surprisingly dismantled the Mountaineers 79-52. “Also, it shows them (the younger players) that our system actually does work. Earlier in the season, guys didn’t really know the system. But now I feel like everybody’s getting better at that. That’s just a big confidence-builder, I feel like.”
After the nonconference game against West Virginia, Purdue returns to Big Ten play for the duration of the regular season, having kept any sort of postseason hopes afloat by winning these last three games it could not afford to lose. And the Boilermakers will be severely tested, beginning with a game at No. 2 Michigan on Thursday. After a game against an emerging Iowa team that on Saturday handed Wisconsin its first conference loss, they play Indiana, currently ranked No. 7.
“I would say the process is ongoing,” coach Matt Painter said when asked if Purdue now could be considered a good team. “We still have to be able to do some basic things — our free-throw shooting (62.8 percent, second-worst in the conference); our attention to detail at times, especially when we get a lead; just carrying out assignments. We haven’t been as consistent in some of those areas. And we have to be a better defensive group.
“I’d like to play more guys than I am, I’d like to play some guys more minutes. But we have to get some guys that do a better job of carrying out their responsibilities. When you start to get into January, you can’t be talking about the same things you are November with certain guys. When you are, it speaks volumes that you need to play somebody else.”
The Boilermakers’ surge has coincided with freshman Rapheal Davis joining their starting lineup, earning the spot with his effort, with matchups allowing them to go smaller; the 6-foot-5 guard still has averaged 5.7 rebounds in his three straight starts. Freshmen A.J. Hammons — from the outset, the center has been a factor on both ends for Purdue — and point guard Ronnie Johnson have continued to develop.
Terone Johnson has been solid. Byrd has shot the ball significantly better recently (including 19-of-40 for 47.5 percent from 3-point range since the start of Big Ten play). And sophomore guard Anthony Johnson had a nice game against West Virginia after an extended funk.
Purdue has shown signs it could compete in games when it faces better competition.
“The thing is, we win a couple games, we can’t let ourselves get a big head,” Byrd said after the Boilermakers beat the Mountaineers. “Sometimes we’ve done that in the past, where we come out, maybe take some bad shots, maybe not focus as much on defense. It doesn’t matter how many games we win in a row; we have to keep the same attitude and do the right things.”