The Journal Gazette
Monday, December 20, 2021 11:50 pm

Boilers reach break with big win

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue didn't play its cleanest or most dominant game against Incarnate Word tonight, but the No. 3 Boilermakers did more than enough to leave with a painless 79-59 victory and head into the holiday break 11-1.

Most Boilermaker fans probably would have taken 11 wins at this point in the season before the year began, although few likely would have guessed the one loss in that stretch would be against a Rutgers team that also lost to Illinois by 35. Despite showing some warts at times this season, Purdue is one miracle Ron Harper Jr. buzzer-beater from being undefeated and ranked No. 1. The Boilermakers have played well enough often enough to make Final Four contention seem like more than a pipe dream. Will they get exposed in Big Ten play? It's always possible, but the non-conference schedule has gone about as well as could be expected. Now comes an eight-day break to, as coach Matt Painter put it, "decompress" and "recalibrate." Center Trevion Williams said the Boilermakers are in need of the break, though at least one Purdue player seems to wish there were practice Tuesday.

"Honestly, I don't like breaks," said guard Jaden Ivey, who had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists tonight. "I'm always at it, 24/7. I love the game. But I do get to see my family and it's been a while since I've been at home. I get to see my little dog, so I'm looking forward to that. When we get back, it's business."

As for the game against the Cardinals and coach Carson Cunningham, a Purdue alum who played for a pair of Boilermaker NCAA Tournament teams in 1999 and 2000, the visitors were a little peskier than expected, but Purdue was never in any real danger. Incarnate Word had no answer for Williams and Zach Edey inside and the pair combined for 25 points and 17 rebounds in 32 minutes. The Cardinals tried to use a 1-3-1 zone to limit post touches for the Boilermaker big men and that worked for the most part, but it also put Incarnate Word behind the 8-ball when it came to rebounding and Williams and Edey just scored through tip-ins instead. The Boilermakers ended with a 46-23 rebounding advantage (it was 37-11 at one juncture) and a 19-5 margin on the offensive glass. Edey got several rebounds just by putting his hands in the air.

"It's always our goal to dominate the glass," Edey said. "Especially when we play a team like (Incarnate Word) that doesn't have the size and strength to keep us off the glass. It's always our goal to try to do what we did today. Obviously it's tougher to do that against a bigger opponent."

Purdue will have plenty of time to face bigger opponents later in the season, but Painter gave an indication of his view on the utility of tonight's matchup with a postgame comment about his substitution patterns. He played 10 players at least 15 minutes each and no one more than 23. 

"I don't think I had a great rhythm to what I was doing (when I subbed), I was just trying to get a lot of people a lot of minutes and try to help along those lines," Painter said. 

Although Incarnate Word was never really a threat to win the game, it did expose one of the main weaknesses of this Purdue team: closing out on 3-point shooters. The Boilermakers are not a bad defensive team, but they do struggle to get out and defend the arc when they have Williams or (especially) Edey in the game. Even freshman Caleb Furst, who usually plays power forward, is not particularly adept at rushing out to meet a 3-point shooter. When Purdue has one of its bigger lineups in the game, it has a huge rebounding advantage against almost everyone, but it is also prone to giving up a flurry of 3s if the other team is shooting well. The Cardinals did that tonight and made 12 long-distance shots, which helped them stay closer than they probably should have been. 

Painter liked his team's defensive performance as a whole, but he acknowledged the Cardinals played a style that made things difficult for the Boilermakers. Purdue will have to figure out a remedy against smaller, quicker teams and we might see the Boilers try out lineups with Mason Gillis at center more often as the season wears on. Remember, Rutgers was able to stay close enough prior to the buzzer-beater because of a hot shooting night from outside.

"Our concentration has been better," Painter said of Purdue's defense. "I don't think we've arrived by any stretch of the imagination, but we're making improvements and that's good. Sometimes other people schematically do things differently where it becomes a little harder. With our team, if you stretch us out (to the 3-point line) and we're bigger, it gets a little harder for us. I can flip it and go small and we've cured that, but is that the best for us? Some days it is, some days it isn't, but that's what's cool about having a lot of options."

Purdue will have the next five days off of practice before returning to workouts the day after Christmas. Painter joked that while he doesn't want his players to do nothing basketball-related during their time away from the team, he doesn't want them "playing pickup on outdoor courts, either." Regardless, the Boilermakers have gotten to the break in exactly the place they need to be, hiccups against Rutgers and (almost) NC State aside. This team has put itself in position to chase a Big Ten title. After the break (and one more tune-up against Nicholls State on Dec. 29), the pursuit of that goal starts in earnest.

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