Purdue held an absolute clinic en route to a 92-65 rout of Nebraska on Friday night.
It was the type of performance that Purdue badly needed and should be the expectation against a team of Nebraska’s level. Tonight was the best overall performance since before Christmas, which was a blowout win over Butler in the Crossroads Classic.
Purdue can score with the best in the country as they proved throughout the non-conference, but the progress they made on defense tonight was the story of the game. The Boilers were flying all over the place, had excellent ball pressure, and made Nebraska’s shooters uncomfortable all night.
Even though the Huskers were able to hit hard shots and score plenty of foul time buckets, the energy Purdue played with was something they hadn’t shown in quite a while. Don’t pretend Purdue’s defensive issues are behind them, but tonight was a big step in the right direction.
A few plays tell the story of this shift in Purdue’s defensive mindset tonight. Most notable though was Sasha Stefanovic’s restless plays to track down a pair of offensive rebounds on missed free throws. Especially from Stefanovic, this kind of heads-up play and effort play hasn’t been common this year.
Another aspect of tonight’s game that could get lost in the scoring and box highlight was Jaden Ivey and Ethan Morton’s work against Nebraska leading scorer Bryce McGowens. McGowens entered tonight averaging 15 points per game, but was limited to just 9 points on 4-9 shooting from the field.
It wasn’t that he had a bad shooting night or that he had been in terrible trouble. Ivey and Morton did a phenomenal job of taking away his ability to create space or get to the edge. Matt Painter clearly trusts these two as the best defenders outside of the big men and they’re more than capable of taking on those roles as well.
Purdue also did a great job of involving the guys who were struggling recently tonight, which is very important in these types of blowout wins. Eric Hunter Jr scored a season-high 8 points in 17 minutes. Hunter Jr is a guy who scored at will his entire basketball life, but was asked to take a step back once he got to Purdue. The Boilermakers are hoping tonight brings him forward and he can be more like the second version of himself. He could also be ready to steal minutes from Isaiah Thompson who is just 1-14 from three-point range during conference play and averaging less than 2.0 points per game.
Another pair of guys who had encouraging games were Brandon Newman and Caleb Furst, who both lost several of their minutes during this recent streak. Newman made 2-4 three-point attempts and played very hard on defense to make plays. He’s another guy who could potentially become the ‘3 and D’ type for Matt Painter as he becomes a bit more consistent.
Newman and Hunter Jr. helped pick up the slack with Stefanovic and Thompson shooting a combined 1-13 from the field, all of which came from three-point attempts.
Furst had been restricted after going through health and safety protocols but was able to do some more running tonight and finished with 10 points on the night. Mason Gillis earned the starting position with his game, but getting Furst back into the rhythm will be key for the second unit.
Leading the Boilermakers tonight was the electric duo of Zach Edey and Jaden Ivey. The big ones were outmatched even before the whistleblower happened tonight because once Edey found his footing in the post, they were about as useful as Brandon Brantley’s pads in training. Edey finished with 22 points on 9-12 shooting and 9 rebounds in just 20 minutes of play.
Ivey was also dynamic in his own right, as usual for the future NBA lottery pick. The second finished with 17 points, including a pair of three-pointers, and went 5-6 from the free throw line.
Like I said before, it was a big game for the Boilermakers in terms of what they wanted to prove to themselves and to others who have been criticized recently. They did just that, returning to vintage Boilermaker basketball and defending their home turf.
Now the question will be whether they can sustain that against better competition. They will get just that in their next game against No. 25 Illinois Fighting Illini on the road. Champaign was sometimes a house of horrors for Boilermakers in the days of Matt Painter. Purdue will look to change those fortunes on Monday at noon EST, where the game will air on FOX.