With Tuesday’s win over rival Indiana, Purdue assumed their spot atop the Big Ten ranks. A three way tie all but two weeks ago was quickly erased, as both Wisconsin and Maryland floundered. In their last eight games (entering Thursday), Maryland went 3-5 while Wisconsin went 4-4. During that time, the tight race became a Purdue inevitability as the team won 7 of 8 games. Three major factors contributed to their conference title.
Balance and Consistency
Outside of all-world Power forward Caleb Swanigan, Purdue employs a roster deprived of excessive star power. Where the glitz lacks, though, the consistency is strong. The Boilermakers utilize a lineup that runs nine deep, with each player averaging at least 10 minutes a game. Of those players, five of them average double figures in scoring.
Possessing a multitude of depth affords Purdue the ability to morph their identity. As opposing defenses attempt to stop Swanigan, the Boilermakers can look elsewhere for production. When the gameplan changes for opponents they often struggle to adjust. Purdue has yet to lose consecutive games this season, and that elusiveness and flexibility is a huge factor.
The near-trap overtime game at Penn State put Purdue’s balance on full display. The Nittany Lions defensive attack was clear; when Swanigan touched the ball, they swarmed with double teams. As simple as the plan appeared, it was equally effective. For only the fifth time all season Swanigan was held double-doubleless, yet the Boilermakers prevailed. How? They shot the lights out of the gym. All said, Purdue hit 12 of 19 shots from beyond the arc and escaped Happy Valley with victory in hand.
Just as easily as Purdue can shift away from a post presence, they can dominate it. Against an interior deficient Rutgers unit, the bigs reigned supreme. Swanigan finished with 12 points and 17 rebounds, while 7’2” running mate Isaac Haas put in 24 points and 11 rebounds.
In Tuesday’s win over Indiana, Purdue showcased their full range of attacks. In the first half, junior guard Dakota Mathias caught fire. He scored 17 of his 19 points in the initial frame, including 3 buckets from deep. As Indiana adjusted in the second half, Purdue did as well, letting Swanigan loose. Like Mathias, he too put up a 17 point half en route to yet another double-double.
In terms of efficiency, especially shooting efficiency, Purdue is one of the better teams in college basketball. The Boilermakers are shooting 48% as a team from the field, good for 28th in the country. Already with high clip shooting for two point baskets, their three point numbers are even more impressive. At an incendiary 41% from deep, Purdue is one of the best three point shooting teams in the country. In fact, only three teams have a higher percentage from the arc.
Shooting and passing have a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. Whether the passing numbers are great because shots are falling, or the shooting numbers are great because the passing is excellent, Purdue has done a terrific job at both. On the year, the Boilermakers are averaging 18.3 assists per game, ranking second in all of college basketball. Despite their lack of ball protection and high turnover numbers, the high assist totals keep their assist/turnover ratio at a highly respectable 1.38.
Much like their ability to neutralize the negative effects of high turnovers, Purdue has been able to counterbalance middle of the pack rebound totals when compared to the rest of the conference. Averaging only 38.2 rebounds per game, the Boilermakers still own a +7.4 rebound margin, ranking 13th in the country.
The Legend of Biggie
There isn’t much left to say about Purdue’s animal in the interior. On Tuesday, Caleb Swanigan totaled his 24th double-double, tying Julius Randle for the most a major conference has seen in the last five years per ESPN. The statistic has become much more than a novelty though. It has become the benchmark for Purdue’s certain success. In the five games Swanigan has failed to record a double-double, the Boilermakers are 2-3.
More than his ability to score and rebound, what really separates Swanigan from the rest of the pack is his IQ. He has tremendous passing vision, punishing opponents who gamble with double teams. As opposing guards attempt to leave him on a pick and roll created island, Swanigan surprises as he can hold his own defensively on the perimeter. More often than not, he effectively hedges the screen and prevents the ballhandler from turning the corner in the first place.
Above everything, though, is Swanigan’s ability to intelligently unleash his aggression. Outside of a rough start to February, Biggie has effectively managed his physicality and skirted foul trouble. The Power forward consistently demonstrates the ability to pick and choose when he will use his physicality to impose his will. Just when he is in the head of the defender, he will expand his range and showcase his 45% three point shot.
Regular season title now in hand, Purdue sets its sight on the upcoming Big Ten tournament. With NCAA tournament seeding and selections on the table, the battle should be vicious. One thing is for sure, the Boilermakers are gunning for this title as well.