WEST LAFAYETTE – An experienced Michigan team took Purdue to school tonight.
The Boilermakers are learning and growing as this season progresses and they took a giant step forward with their breakthrough win over No. 15 Ohio State on Tuesday, but they are not yet in Michigan's class yet and the Wolverines proved that emphatically with a 70-53 victory, the outcome of which was never really in doubt.
As things stand, Purdue is a good team that is getting better, but Michigan is a physical, hard-nosed, talented group that might be the best team in the country outside of the dominant duo of Gonzaga and Baylor. The Wolverines gave Purdue a lesson in what it takes to win at the highest levels and the Boilers will have to internalize those teachings and get back to the drawing board. Coach Matt Painter wants more from his team from an effort standpoint.
"I didn't think we played very hard," Painter said. "I told (the team) a story in the locker room (after the game) about one of our former players here who played really well in the NCAA Tournament and just emptied his tank, just exhausted himself he played so hard.
"I've seen (this team) at their best and that's the only thing, from an effort and concentration standpoint, you expect their best. And tonight wasn't their best. Michigan had a lot to do with that. Michigan's experience, Michigan's toughness, took us out of a lot of things. We have to be tougher than we were tonight."
Part of the problem for Purdue is that it continues to get off to rough starts. The Boilermakers have been a second-half team in Big Ten play, consistently falling behind early before often roaring back to win. Tonight, the Boilers found themselves down 14-4 with 12:22 remaining in the first half after missing 12 of their first 14 shots from the field. That's obviously not the start you want after what should have been an uplifting victory over the Buckeyes and the early deficit was too much to overcome against a Michigan team that prevented Purdue from ever stringing baskets together. That's the problem with slow starts: sometimes, you dig yourself too deep of a hole to climb out of.
"We just have to come out and fight," said center Trevion Williams, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds but went just 6 for 19 from the field. "We have yet to put a full game together. We've been a second-half team and once we can put a full 40 (minutes) together, we'll be a really good team."
To be fair, the Boilermakers were put in a difficult position before the game began. Guard Sasha Stefanovic tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday and the Boilermakers only had two practices to figure out how to deal with the loss of their second-leading scorer and best 3-point shooter. The junior from Crown Point will miss at least the next two games and his absence will lower the ceiling of Purdue's offense, as it did tonight, especially if the Boilermakers can't find a way to replicate the shooting threat he provides.
Among the players who will be most responsible for providing that extra outside threat is Jaden Ivey, the hero against Ohio State. Ivey made his first career start tonight, but struggled shooting the ball once again, going 3 for 14 from the field and 0 for 5 from 3-point range. His aggressiveness going to the rim is great, but Purdue really needs him to shoot the ball better than he has this season – he's hitting only 18.4% from beyond the arc. That's not the type of shooter that opposing teams have to respect and and they can pay more attention to Williams in the post as a result.
"Just being somebody that can be reliable on both ends," Painter said of what the team needs from Ivey. "That's a hard thing to do for a young player, especially when you're missing shots. When you're making shots, it helps other parts of your game when you're young. You're more vibrant, you're more eager to get out there and compete. When you're missing shots, you don't quite have the maturity yet to go on the other end and have a short memory and not be thinking about it. You gotta move to the next play."
There is some concern going forward about whether Stefanovic's positive test could presage a wider outbreak within the team. The shooting guard began experiencing symptoms when he woke up Wednesday morning, Painter said, just hours after playing in the game against Ohio State. That means he could already have been contagious when he played in that contest and celebrated with his team in the locker room after the big win. Though Purdue was as cautious as possible and held Stefanovic out of practice even before the positive test, it's possible that might not be enough. Such is life in a season being played amidst a pandemic. The Boilermakers have the next week off because of the Ohio State game getting moved from Jan. 27 to Jan. 19 and they'll need it, possibly to weather a spate of positive tests, but at the very least to figure out how to deal with the loss of Stefanovic for the foreseeable future.