WEST LAFAYETTE – The two highest-scoring teams in college basketball will clash tonight at Mackey Arena. What happens when it's an unstoppable force against another unstoppable force? First to 100 wins, perhaps?
No. 2 Purdue will take on Iowa tonight in the first Big Ten matchup of the season for both teams. It's the official start of the Boilermakers' quest for a record 25th Big Ten title and they're the clear league favorite as the conference slate gets under way. More than that, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton gushed the Boilers had "Final Four written all over them" after his team got crushed by Purdue on Tuesday.
The Boilermakers have certainly played like a Final Four team so far this season, compiling a resume that is worthy of the program's highest ranking in the AP Poll since 1988. If they can hand the high-flying Hawkeyes their first defeat of the season tonight, Purdue will likely ascend to previously uncharted territory: the No. 1 ranking in the country. But that's a significant "if."
The Hawkeyes come into this game ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring offense, piling up 94 points per game on better than 50% shooting. Many thought the loss of two-time Sporting News National Player of the Year Luka Garza to the NBA would cripple Iowa, at least for this season, but the Hawkeyes have instead reloaded behind a new superstar: sophomore Keegan Murray. The 6-foot-8 forward is the nation's second-leading scorer at 24.6 points per game on 61% shooting and is pulling down 8.9 rebounds per contest with 2.3 blocks per game to boot. He isn't a great 3-point shooter (just 34.5%), but he's good enough that opposing bigs can't sag off of him and that gives him an opportunity to drive past them. Once he's in the lane, he has a terrific bag of tricks and his creativity around the rim nets him plenty of cheap buckets.
Purdue coach Matt Painter said it will take a team effort for the Boilermakers to slow down Murray, but the player who will have the most responsibility in that effort, at least to start, will be Blackhawk Christian graduate Caleb Furst, the true freshman. Furst has been a sparkplug for the Boilermakers this season and he's been a much better perimeter defender than many thought, but tonight will be his most difficult assignment to date by a wide margin. If he's struggling to stay in front of Murray, Painter might turn to Mason Gillis on a more regular basis, though the Boilermakers are giving up some 3-point shooting on offense when that switch is made. If Murray can get in the lane and force Purdue to help, he has the option of passing out to a pair of sharpshooters in Jordan Bohannon (44.7% from 3-point range) and Murray's twin, Kris Murray (61.1% from beyond the arc, a figure that would be the best in the country if he had the few more attempts necessary to qualify). Painter said the Boilermakers have been "just OK" on defense for most of the season and they'll be pushed in that area tonight in a way they have not been previously.
Fortunately for Purdue, it can always fall back on its own offense, which has been electric, surpassing 90 points in 6 of 7 games. It's possible that becomes 7 of 8 tonight because Iowa is not as good on defense as it is on offense, though it has not been bad this season. The Boilermakers are the nation's top team in field goal percentage (54.5%) and 3-point percentage (44.2%) and Iowa is outside the top 100 in both of those categories. No one has yet figured out how to slow the Boilers down for long stretches yet, but Iowa will present a fairly unique challenge because it likes to run so much. Purdue has been somewhat loose with the ball in recent games, at least in the open court, and that led to a 25-12 advantage for Florida State in points off turnovers Tuesday. If the Boilermakers can't take care of the ball, Iowa will take advantage and push the ball the other way at every opportunity. The Hawkeyes could steal a mess of easy baskets, just as the Seminoles did, if Purdue does not tighten up.
The Boilermakers have not been pressed in any of their games at Mackey Arena this season, winning all five by an average of 38.6 points. Could this be the night Purdue struggles to get separation for the first time? Or are some forces more unstoppable than others?