WEST LAFAYETTE – There have been a handful of games this season in which Purdue has put its full potential on display. After those games, opposing coaches have invariably heaped praise on the Boilermakers. Nebraska's Fred Hoiberg got his turn to do so tonight.
"They're relentless with their pressure, picking up full(-court)," Hoiberg said. "This is as good a team as I've seen. They're so complete with the way they shoot the ball and (Sasha) Stefanovic didn't even make shots tonight. It's a pick-your-poison deal with this team, the way they can spread you out with those two bigs (Zach Edey and Trevion Williams) coming in for each other."
Hoiberg's assessment came after the seventh-ranked Boilermakers dismantled his struggling team, winning 92-65 at Mackey Arena tonight in a game in which, as Hoiberg pointed out, sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic went only 1 for 7 from 3-point range despite myriad good looks. It probably should've been a 100-point night for the Boilers, but they made only 31% of their 3s.
Stefanovic was asked about his rough night and, after he gave a basic "I-have-to-be-better" answer, Edey jumped in to defend his teammate:
"He was also plus-22 in 26 minutes, so it's not like he was doing nothing out there," said the 7-foot-4 center, who had 22 points and nine rebounds.
Yes, even Stefanovic (who had nine points on 6 for 6 at the foul line, three assists and three rebounds) contributed to what was, despite some hiccups late in the first half, a dominant team victory. The Boilermakers raced out to a 23-4 lead and never really let Nebraska back in the game, although it took until midway through the second half to really land a knockout punch. Nebraska is not a good team and Purdue absolutely should have won this game going away, but it was encouraging to see the Boilers play with some of the energy that has been missing for much of the season. Jaden Ivey, who finished with 17 points, brought a fiery passion to the game from the opening tip and his teammates followed in behind him. While it remains relatively early in the Big Ten schedule, this was something of a statement from the Boilers that they still plan to be part of the conference race despite getting off to a 1-2 start in Big Ten play.
The effort and energy was most obvious on the defensive end, where the Boilers played one of their better games of the season. They used active hands and plenty of want-to on loose balls to force 17 Nebraska turnovers, which Purdue converted into a 28-7 advantage in points off giveaways. Coach Matt Painter has harped on his team's defense all season and there's no question it's improved recently. The only drawback was a stretch late in the first half in which the effort waned somewhat and Nebraska was able to get a few open 3s. It was just enough of a blip to keep Purdue hungry to continue improving.
"We're making some strides (on defense), but by no stretch of the imagination have we arrived," Painter said. "There's still breakdowns out there. We have to do a better job of containing the dribble. When we kept the ball out of the paint, good things happened. When they got into the paint, we had breakdowns. ... We just have to keep working on containing the dribble and doing a good job as a team helping each other."
Ivey in particular has stepped up on the defensive end in recent games, playing with an energy on defense against Penn State and Nebraska he had not always exhibited in the early parts of the season. The super sophomore has all the tools to be a terrific defender (instincts, athleticism, length) and he has been adept all year at playing passing lanes to look for steals, but he has not been a great on-ball defender most of the time. That's changed in the last couple of games and tonight was his best performance yet in that area as he shut down Nebraska star Bryce McGowens, holding him to nine points (seven below his season average) on only 4-for-9 shooting. Purdue has been looking for a stopper against opposing teams' top guards and Ivey might be it.
"He's done a better job, it's just been more of a concentrated effort," Painter said of Ivey. "He's a good player and if you do your job and make it hard on (your man), you're going to help our team win. ... Do you stop the really, really good players? He's going in that direction. Obviously he's very, very talented, but we have to stay on him ... because he's so important. He can guard a lot of people. He's done a much better job against Penn State and Nebraska of minimizing those breakdowns."
That defensive intensity will need to carry over because there are more difficult matchups coming: Purdue's next game is a Monday trip to Champaign to take on Illinois in what should be one of the more raucous road environments the Boilers will face this season. The Fighting Illini are 6-0 in Big Ten play and if Purdue is going to capture the Big Ten title, the game is essentially a must-win; a loss would drop the Boilers 3 1/2 games back with 14 to go. Illinois is not Nebraska and it will likely not give Purdue the ball repeatedly. Can Purdue defend well enough in the halfcourt to win?
"We've just gotta keep the same energy," Ivey said. "Just keep playing with that swagger we've been playing with and the rest will take care of itself. We've got a lot of guys on this team fired up from all the L's that we took. We just gotta keep playing fired up.
"Illinois has a great team and I've just gotta keep that chip on my shoulder, whether that's offensively or defensively. ... Defense is going to win that game, for real. We've gotta bring it."
Note: Painter praised Blackhawk Christian graduate Caleb Furst, who had 10 points on 3-for-3 shooting, including a corner 3, in 16 minutes. Furst hasn't played as much lately as he did at the beginning of the season and he missed a game because of a positive COVID test, but Painter was happy with the Fort Wayne native's ability to get comfortable on the court in limited time.
"It was great to see Caleb knock down some shots, make some plays," Painter said. "It's hard when you you're out a little bit and you're trying to get back in the swing of things, especially on the defensive end. That's probably the hardest piece is to get in the game and feel comfortable there when your minutes are less than they used to be."