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  • Associated Press Even when he doesn't get the blocked shot, Purdue center Matt Haarms' length often forces his opponents to alter their shots which is sometimes equally as effective.

  • Associated Press Purdue's Matt Haarms talks to reporters during the Big Ten conference NCAA college basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Rosemont, Ill. (AP Photo/David Banks)

Thursday, October 03, 2019 1:00 am

Defensive duo ready to step up at Purdue

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ROSEMONT, Ill. – After reaching the Elite Eight last season, Purdue lost one of the country's most talented scorers in guard Carsen Edwards, who averaged 24.3 points and who is now a member of the Boston Celtics.

Now, Purdue is trying to figure out how to replace him.

Without Edwards' scoring, the Boilermakers plan to hang their hat on defense. Coach Matt Painter, entering his 15th season at Purdue, cited guarding ability as a team strength at Big Ten Media Day on Wednesday. Two players in particular make this a dangerous defensive team.

“I thought Matt Haarms was one of the best defenders in our league, even though he didn't make the All-Defense team,” Painter said. “I think we have possibly the best guard from a defensive standpoint in our league (Nojel Eastern). ... So I think that's a great start. They both have a lot of experience, they've played in big games.

“They're both elite defenders.”

Haarms has been a dynamic defender since the day he stepped on the court as a redshirt freshman in 2017-18. The 7-foot-3 center's first two season totals for blocks at Purdue each rank among the top 10 in school history, and he affects shots in the lane with his length even when he doesn't get a hand on the ball.

This season, the redshirt junior expects to be on the floor more often with fellow big man Trevion Williams. Though they are most comfortable hanging out around the rim, inevitably one of them will have to guard on the perimeter against power forwards. Haarms has worked on expanding his range defensively to do just that.

“I think (our success) will start on the defensive end for us,” Haarms said. “We've got a lot of length. I mean, look at this guy (Eastern), Big Ten All-Defense-caliber guy here. ... Even the freshmen I think are really physical. I think we have to establish our defensive identity before we establish our offensive identity.”

As Haarms pointed out, the 6-6 Eastern is a long, athletic presence, a contender for the best on-ball defender in the league. He takes pride in his work on the defensive end, which he said he developed to help him earn playing time sooner than he otherwise would have. This season, he'll be asked to guard the other team's best perimeter player on a nightly basis.

“If you can get a steal in the halfcourt as the guard brings the ball up, that gives you room to make a play on offense, a dunk or a nice pass,” said Eastern, who earned a spot on the preseason All-Big Ten team released Wednesday. “Defense always leads to offense. I've never really heard offense leads to defense. So I just use my defense to lead to offense, to get easy buckets.”

Even with all the defensive talent, these Boilermakers will be a work in progress on that end of the floor as they go through preseason practice. They aren't yet close to where Painter wants them to be.

“It should be (a good defensive team),” the coach said. “No, I'm not seeing that. We've been at practice for a week. If any (coach) says they are (seeing good defense), they're lying to you. You can't be at practice for a week and be good at something.”

Note: Painter announced that freshman guard Brandon Newman, a three-star recruit from Valparaiso, sprained his ankle recently in practice and will be out likely until Friday.

dsinn@jg.net