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What To Make of An Up and Down Purdue Team?

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Dissecting an enigmatic Boilermaker squad

NCAA Basketball: Ohio at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody seems to know what to make of Purdue. The Boilermakers are 8-5 with zero KenPom Tier A wins. (Texas Southern has three.) Yet Purdue is somehow still holding steady in KenPom’s top 20.

It’s not just a quirk of Ken Pomeroy’s system, either. T-Rank has Purdue at No. 20 as of early Sunday morning. But if anything, T-Rank makes the question of whether Purdue is any good or not even more confusing. That site projects the Boilermakers to finish the year 18-13... while earning a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

I just spent an extended weekend in Nashville at the Music City Bowl surrounded by Purdue fans, and most of them had their fair share of complaints about Matt Painter’s squad. Here are some of the things I heard.

Complaint: Purdue Is Asking Carsen Edwards To Do Too Much

It’s true, Carsen Edwards’ usage is up from 28.7% of possessions to 36.1%. The latter number is the fifth highest usage rate in the country. Purdue is leaning on their star harder than ever, which makes sense given that most of the rest of Purdue’s team is made up of newcomers, underclassmen, and former walk-ons.

But by most statistical measures, Edwards had been able to handle the heavier load. His offensive rating has only dipped slightly, from 117.3 to 115.4. There are similar tiny dips in his 3-point and 2-point field goal percentages. Meanwhile his FT percent is up from 82% to 89%. He is drawing slightly more fouls though getting to the foul line slightly less often.

What’s more, Edwards’ biggest jump has come in his assist rate, which has risen from 19.6% to 24.6%. He is getting his teammates more involved. His turnover rate is also up, but last year—as is the case with most college basketball players—he did a much better job of taking care of the ball as the season went on.

Carsen Edwards is not the reason Purdue has lost five games.

Complaint: Grady Eifert Shouldn’t Be Starting

Grady Eifert is not a high-usage guy like Carsen Edwards. He’s a former walk-on now turned into a senior starter. Nobody is expecting him to be Purdue’s No. 1 or No. 2 or even No. 3 option. His job is to pull down rebounds, hit open shots, and not make mistakes.

The numbers show that he’s doing exactly that. Eifert has the highest offensive rating on the team, and is the second-best offensive rebounder next to Evan Boudreaux and his old man game. He has a higher 3-point percentage than Edwards, Ryan Cline, and Sasha Stefanovic. The only damning thing I see from his stat line is that his turnover rate is higher than you’d like to see for a senior. But for the most part, Eifert is giving Matt Painter exactly what the coach expects.

Complaint: Nojel Eastern Can’t Shoot

Eastern has not hit a three-pointer all season, which isn’t something that you want to see from someone who is ostensibly your starting point guard. But Purdue doesn’t seem to be missing that aspect of his game too much. The Boilermakers are shooting a very respectable 37% as a team, and they shoot more triples than anyone else in the Big Ten by a wide margin.

It’s Eastern’s free throw form that drives Purdue fans crazy. I couldn’t find any good examples of Nojel at the line on YouTube, but for non-Purdue fans, you can basically extrapolate this to the charity stripe.

That said, on Saturday Eastern went 6-7 from the free throw line. That boffo performance brings him up to—oof—47% on the year. So while there’s some validity to this complaint, there’s also the fact that Eastern doesn't get to the line often enough to make a difference. If Nojel was 100% for the season-to-date, Purdue would still have five losses.

Complaint: Matt Painter Can’t Recruit

This is the longest and most athletic team Purdue has ever had. The last two recruiting classes have been above average in the Painter era (though the 2019 class obviously hasn’t arrived on campus yet.) I didn’t hear any complaints about recruiting last season when Purdue was winning. And that’s because complaints about recruiting are like complaints about leaving the toilet seat up—on its own, no one cares. It’s just an excuse to get mad when it’s something else that is really bothering you.

So while there’s a nugget of truth in each of these complaints, they don't tell the entire story. So what’s the rest of the picture?

Fact: Purdue Still Has An Elite Offense

Purdue is the eighth-best offensive team in the country. For all the worries about missed shots and lack of a consistent option beyond Carsen Edwards, the Boilermakers are still good-to-great in every single team offensive category except getting to the free throw line. It’s a small step backwards from last season when Purdue had the No. 2 offense in all the land, but any critique that focuses on Purdue’s offense is missing the mark.

Fact: Purdue’s Mediocre Defense Is Driven By Two Things

Purdue is decent on the defensive glass. They are decent at forcing turnovers, and pretty good at blocking shots. They don’t give up a lot of easy twos. The problem comes from two statistical categories: 3-point percentage and FT percentage. Here Purdue ranks No. 287 and No. 336, respectively.

These are the two statistical categories that are most outside a team’s control. Purdue has no control over how well teams shoot from the foul line, unless you think the fans aren’t heckling opposing players enough. (And note that Purdue is undefeated in front of Mackey Arena crowds this season.)

Three point percentage is another story. The key here is whether teams are hitting a lot of threes due to statistical noise or due to some systemic issue with the defense. The easiest way to check on that is to look at how many three pointers teams take against Purdue. If it’s the normal amount, then their hot shooting is likely noise. If it’s less than normal, then that means Purdue is actually doing a good job of guarding the three-point line and teams are only taking the highest-percentage wide open looks. If it’s more than normal, then teams know Purdue is bad at three-point defense and are actively exploiting it.

The average D-I team shoots 38.7% of its field goals from behind the arc. Purdue’s opponents are hoisting an incredible 46.6%. That’s such a high number that KenPom thinks Purdue plays a significant amount of zone defense, even while Painter is known as a coach who stubbornly insists on man-to-man.

THIS is what Purdue fans should be complaining about—bad defensive rotations leading to lots of easy threes. Can that get fixed as the team matures and learns how to play together? The answer will probably determine Purdue’s fate this season.

Fact: Purdue Has Played A Really Hard Schedule.

As pointed out above, Purdue hasn’t lost a home game yet this year. They’ve lost a lot of close road and neutral site games (plus a blowout loss in Ann Arbor, which will probably happen to a lot of teams this season). KenPom says Purdue’s schedule is the 13th-hardest so far, and of the top 20, the only other power conference teams are Kansas and Oklahoma.

T-Rank projects that by the end of the season, Purdue will have played the fourth-hardest schedule in D-I. That’s how they think the Boilermakers will end up with both 13 losses and a 7 seed, an almost-unheard-of combination. Purdue just needs to win some of those hard games. The good news is, with the Big Ten having a good season this year, there are plenty of quality wins still available.

Conclusion

Purdue has been an extraordinarily unlucky team so far this season.

There are two ways of looking at that unlucky streak. The statistician says that you’d expect results to regress to the mean, and that Purdue will go through Big Ten play looking like the top-20 team the computers say that they are. Napoleon—who famously said “I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.”—would say there’s a reason unlucky organizations don’t win and bet against the Boilers.

Naturally I’m inclined to the statistical view, but if Purdue drops Thursday’s game against Iowa, I might start thinking that Napoleon was onto something.