WEST LAFAYETTE – Call it a holiday hangover, call it looking ahead with Big Ten play on the horizon, call it whatever you want, but No. 3 Purdue did not play its best game against Nicholls State tonight.
The Boilermakers posted some gaudy offensive numbers – cracking 100 points for the first time since February 2020, dishing 30 assists (ninth most in program history) on 35 made field goals, shooting 57% from the field and 48% from 3-point range, turning the ball over only eight times – but the 104-90 triumph over their visitors from the Southland Conference was far closer than it should have been and featured some shoddy defensive play and and a something of a lack of energy at times.
It's the second straight game the Boilermakers have let an inferior team hang around. They also did so against Incarnate Word before the Christmas break, a game they won 79-59. On both occasions, Purdue (12-1) struggled to defend the perimeter and the opponent buried a barrage of 3s to stay closer than it should have.
Those performances aren't particularly encouraging heading into Monday's return to Big Ten play against No. 24 Wisconsin, especially after the Boilermakers seemed to make significant strides on defense against Butler 10 days ago.
"You're never ready (for conference play), obviously we just gave up 90 points," coach Matt Painter said. "But I think you can grab a silver lining with that. Sometimes you dominate a team and you win by 50 points and you shut them out and you think you've arrived and it's kind of fool's gold. Now, it shows that we need some work on the defensive end. We need to give more attention to detail and stick to our rules.
"We've had a great non-conference, going undefeated, done a really good job there, but you're still trying to make that quest and have the improvement to be a better team."
To be fair to the Boilermakers, some of Nicholls' offensive output was the result of a talented group of Colonels guards that can score on just about anyone. Ty Gordon filled it up to the tune of 29 points on 9-for-15 3-point shooting and the visitors made some well-contested shots. As Painter pointed out, Purdue had some breakdowns defensively, but the Colonels also made shots when the Boilermakers didn't break down. Nicholls is going to scare the daylights out of some poor No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
What was concerning was Purdue letting the Colonels be the more aggressive, energetic team. That was reflected in the rebounding numbers, where Nicholls, which has nowhere near the Boilers' size, compiled a 14-9 advantage in offensive rebounds and a 24-6 edge in second-chance points.
"We don't box out," Painter said of what he takes away from those disparities. "I thought (Nicholls) played harder when the ball went up, I thought they got 50-50 balls better than us. When we had to box out and fight for them, I thought we won a couple of them, but for the most part they won those. I thought they were just quicker to the basketball, they did a better job than us."
It's possible Purdue, which finished off its nonconference schedule 11-0, the program's first undefeated out-of-league record since 2009-10, simply couldn't get jazzed about playing a low-major team coming off a six-day break with Big Ten play just five days away. That's understandable, but it's dangerous for a team to have to flip a switch to play good defense.
On the other hand, Purdue was sublime on offense tonight. Painter has spent all year stressing how any team looks better when shots are falling and the true test will come when the Boilermakers are not making everything. That's true, but there are few teams in the country that just decide to shoot the lights out more often than Purdue. Tonight was not all about making shots, either. The Boilermakers played near-perfect team basketball, assisting on 30 of 35 made field goals.
Nicholls State's strategy involved taking Purdue's post touches away as much as possible. That would be smart in most cases against a bigger team, but Purdue's centers are some of the nation's best passers out of the post and the Boilermakers have knockdown shooters all over the floor. The result was a first half in which Purdue went 11 of 19 from 3-point range and a game in which centers Zach Edey and Trevion Williams combined for 12 assists (eight for Williams) and zero turnovers. Those are otherworldly stats for a pair of guards and downright eye-popping for two centers. Williams has been the best passing big man in the country for several years now and he put all of that ability on display tonight.
"He's magical with the basketball," Painter said of Williams, who was two assists and one point shy of a triple-double. "If you cut and you move and put yourself in position by reading what the defense is doing, he'll find you. ... He's a real weapon when he has the ball in the low post or on the perimeter."
Edey's ability to kick the ball out is newer, but it's also very effective. His growth as a passer since last season is noticeable and he's no longer committing the offensive fouls that were so common in 2020-21, when he would swing his elbows around after catching the ball. Purdue's centers are deadly posting up and deadly creating for others and they have set the tone for a Boilers team that shares the ball as well anyone. Ethan Morton came off the bench and dished a career-high seven assists tonight. It was that kind of performance for the Boilermakers, who showed plenty of defensive warts and plenty to dream on offensively.
The Big Ten awaits. The quest for a 25th conference title starts in earnest now.
Note: Fort Wayne native and former Blackhawk Christian star Caleb Furst was placed in Purdue's health and safety protocol prior to the game and did not play. Furst, who has started for the Boilermakers all season, is questionable to play Monday against Wisconsin.
"There's nothing definite at this point, but he's trending in the right direction," Painter said.