WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue coach Matt Painter had some harsh words for his team's defensive performance and effort against Indianapolis in an exhibition on Thursday.
The Boilermakers took those words to heart and played much better on defense in a 96-67 season-opening victory over Bellarmine tonight at Mackey Arena, but it was the Purdue offense that stole the show. The Boilers used an inside-out strategy to light up the scoreboard and send the sold-out Mackey Arena into a frenzy with a 3-point barrage.
While Bellarmine is not the best team Purdue will face in 2021-22, the Boilermakers won in the way they hope to win games all year: feed the ball into arguably the nation's best center combo as often as possible and then drain 3s off of kick-out passes when the defense sends an extra defender at Trevion Williams or Zach Edey. It helps that Williams is second to none among big men when it comes to passing ability and he made a flurry of outstanding dishes out to the perimeter from the post. If basketball credited assists like hockey does, Williams might have had double-digit helpers tonight. As it was, he finished with three, seven rebounds and just one shot attempt.
"Trevion did such a great job in the post of recognizing double-teams and being very unselfish in looking for those shooters outside," said guard Sasha Stefanovic, who had a game-high 23 points and made five 3s. "(Bellarmine) had a gameplan of overhelping on the weak-side, so we were working on the skip (passes) and screening our own man. We did a great job of executing our gameplan and we made good passes that led to good shots."
Stefanovic scored 16 of his points in the second half, including 12 straight for Purdue in a 2:25 span that saw him drain four 3s. Five Boilermakers made at least one 3 and Purdue poured in 16 all told on 36 attempts, a blistering 44% clip. Bellarmine doesn't have the size to guard Williams or Edey one-on-one inside and the rubber will meet the road for Purdue against teams such as Illinois and Michigan that can theoretically limit the Boiler centers with only one defender. Still, it was encouraging to see Purdue make the right pass over and over again, spread the wealth and knock down open shots when it had them. This can be an extremely dangerous offense when it's firing on all cylinders like it was tonight.
Purdue's defense seemed like the area that would need the most work early in the season, especially guarding the 3-point line. That was partially true against the Knights, who made 12 3s, but Bellarmine runs a difficult offense with a bevy of screening and cutting actions and Purdue essentially figured it out by the second half, holding the visitors to 33% shooting and four 3-pointers after halftime. Overall, the defensive intensity level was much higher than it was in the exhibition game and Purdue was more sound in its rotations. It's not where the Boilers need to be, but it was a step in the right direction.
"When you make shots, you can set your defense and it makes it easier defensively," Painter said. "We obviously had lapses, but I thought for the most part our guys collectively did a pretty good job. There were just some attention-to-detail sort of things. I thought we got caught up in the motion of the game. We'd have a good run and they would have a run right back at you, but it was more of our breakdowns that led to their runs.
"I thought we were better tonight. The game was good for us because (Bellarmine) is so different than everybody else, the way they move the ball and cut."
One player who did well on defense was Blackhawk graduate Caleb Furst, who grabbed nine rebounds in 26 minutes his collegiate debut and did well in perimeter defense, even staying in front of his man a couple of times when he was switched on to a guard. Furst only had two points on three shot attempts, but it's pretty clear after only one game that he'll play a significant role for the Boilermakers this season.
"That's a hard game to play for somebody his size, guarding perimeter players really," Painter said of the 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball. "We switched a lot, so he was on all their guys, we put him on the point guard, who can take you into the post and play. It's that defensive adjustment, so you keep handling each schematic approach as you face different teams and growing from it. I thought he did really good things."
Painter also noted that he'd like Furst to be a little bit more involved on offense – not necessarily hunting his own shot, but looking for cheap points on runouts, offensive rebounds and dives to the rim when a big man is posting up. It will be an adjustment on that end as Furst learns to play a supporting role following a high school career in which he was always the center of attention on offense.
But Furst and all of the Boilermakers were good enough to win tonight, handily. There will be teams that challenge Purdue in ways Bellarmine is simply not capable of, but the Boilers left no doubt as to their potential, especially on the offensive end. That's a solid night, especially after the semi-debacle that was the exhibition game. Basketball is back, Mackey Arena is loud again and Purdue's hunt for a 25th Big Ten title has officially begun.