Purdue guard D.J. Byrd (21) celebrates after Purdue defeated Northwestern 58-56 in an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Updated: March 2, 2012 8:21AM
Even as it has reached the halfway point of its Big Ten schedule, Purdue remains something of an enigma.
The Boilermakers’ performance this season has been inconsistent, all over the place, making it difficult to gauge what they’re going to do on a game-to-game (half-to-half?) basis.
This much is clear, though: They’re not a great team (which was to be expected given the two program greats they graduated).
But they’re good.
And they’re good enough to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, they will make their sixth consecutive trip, last missing out in 2005-06, coach Matt Painter’s first season.
No, it won’t be a pretty ride getting there.
The Boilermakers probably will finish in the 9-9 or 10-8 range in conference play (though it wouldn’t be a shock if there’s some deviation, given the unpredictability of this team and this league in general), throw in a win in the Big Ten Tournament. That resume would be worthy of a spot in the NCAA Tournament (if not an overly high seed) out of the conference that generally is rated as the country’s best, from top to bottom. (And they’d be eminently capable of winning at least a game — after all, Purdue has won its first game in the NCAA Tournament 13 straight times.)
Plus, could you imagine them in the NIT in Robbie Hummel’s final season?
With two losses in its last three homes games (albeit to two upper-division teams) after the 26-game win streak, Purdue no longer has that aura of invincibility at Mackey Arena. But the Boilermakers also have shown the ability to win on the road (albeit against three lower-division teams, and snagging anything more than one more road win — if that — will be a challenge).
This team doesn’t have a ton of offensive firepower, with so much falling on Hummel (and think about where it would be without him, as should have been the case).
And this team doesn’t defend nearly as ferociously as recent editions.
“We have to contain the dribble better, just have more discipline,” Painter said. “At times, we make improvements during stretches of a game, and then we just have absolute breakdowns. We just can’t have those breakdowns where guys are getting direct drives at the basket or clean looks at the rim.”
So where do the Boilermakers — who also have been hindered, including in practice, by injuries to several key players — go from here, with a week between their vital win at Northwestern and their first of two showdowns against a rejuvenated Indiana?
A lot of the focus is on their lineup, and how much they’ll continue to go small, with Hummel as the nominal center surrounded by essentially four guards.
Purdue won with that approach at an undersized Northwestern, with Travis Carroll playing 11 minutes, and neither Jacob Lawson nor Sandi Marcius playing at all. The Boilermakers were outrebounded by the Wildcats, the Big Ten’s worst team statistically in that category, 37-23, but committed just five turnovers and collected 16.
“Our guards did a poor job of rebounding,” Painter said. “The rebounds that we didn’t get was just hustle — it was guards not boxing out, guards not chasing the ball. We played all guards, so it was on them. It’s not like the other (post) guys are going to come in and dominate the game on the glass; we haven’t had that type of production from those guys anyway. So we might as well be a little bit better taking care of the ball, making decisions. The rebounding was disappointing, and we have to do a better job there. Offensively, it helps us in terms of making decisions.”
It’s tempting just to put the five best players on the floor — even against Cody Zeller and Indiana, and Jared Sullinger and Ohio State, and Meyers Leonard and Illinois, and maybe Adreian Payne and Michigan State — and see what happens.
But nothing has been set in stone.
“We will try to use it (the smaller lineup) at times,” Painter said. “Other times, we will stay with a more traditional-size lineup. We’ll just kind of wait and see, and just do what we feel is best for that particular game.
“We’ll continue to watch tape and continue to go through practice, and just do what’s best for us, or what’s best against Indiana. That’s something that coaches are always pondering. Sometimes it’s best to really focus in on your team and making them adjust to your team, but it also can get flipped on you where you need to adjust to your opponent.
Sometimes it’s a fine line. We’ll see how the week goes. No matter what, we’ll play both ways during the course of a game.”