By CLIFF BRUNT
A Purdue win over No. 3 Indiana on Wednesday wouldn’t be as big an upset as some might think.
I have covered both teams this season, so I have perhaps a unique perspective on their matchup. Indiana is loaded with skill and weapons, but the Hoosiers have some weaknesses the Boilermakers are capable of exploiting.
Here are 10 possibilities that could lead to a Purdue upset:
1. Purdue takes advantage of Jordan Hulls’ defensive deficiencies.
Indiana coach Tom Crean said at Sunday’s press conference after the Michigan State game that the first part of his defensive game plan is always to figure out who he’s going to put Hulls on. He tries to find the best matchup for his undersized guard, then he builds from there. Purdue makes that a difficult decision because of its balance. Hulls can’t keep up with either Terone or Ronnie Johnson, and D.J. Byrd would shoot right over him. A likely matchup is Byrd because of speed. Whomever Hulls is guarding will have to have a big game to make up for some of Purdue’s disadvantages. I think Byrd will be that guy.
2. Purdue dictates tempo and slows the game down.
Wisconsin wrote the book on how to beat Indiana — slow the pace and limit the Hoosiers’ threes and transition baskets. The Badgers held the Hoosiers to three fast-break points and three 3-pointers. Few teams can execute that game plan, but Purdue is one that can. Purdue is fast at most positions and can get back defensively. Even 7-foot center A.J. Hammons is relatively mobile. There won’t be as many runouts as Indiana is used to getting because Purdue generally gets back on defense.
3. Ronnie Johnson outplays Yogi Ferrell.
A big part of Wisconsin’s win over Indiana was that point guard Traevon Jackson outplayed Ferrell. Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson is good enough to do the same. He’ll be one of the few players Ferrell sees this season who can match his quickness. Ronnie will need to stay in front of Ferrell on defense and resist the temptation to get out of control and do too much on offense.
4. Indiana forgets about Cody Zeller.
This happens way too often. Indiana is so good at shooting threes that the Hoosiers forget they have the preseason national Player of the Year in the post. Zeller has scored a combined 11 points the past two games. He has not gotten established, therefore, other guys haven’t been as open. Indiana beat Michigan State with so-so production from Zeller because Victor Oladipo played out of his mind. Oladipo is a very good player, but he can’t get 21 points, seven rebounds and six steals every night like he did against Michigan State. The Hoosiers will need Zeller on Wednesday.
5. Hammons shows up.
I wrote on this site that Hammons was emerging as a star. I still believe that, even though his production has been down the past few games. He’s a good enough big to force Zeller out of his comfort zone. Zeller was virtually powerless when Michigan State’s 6-foot-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix set up shop down low on Sunday. Hammons is even bigger. Zeller is a great player, but he is a mobile forward who plays center because he’s taller than everyone else. Indiana simply does not have a good matchup for Hammons. If he stays out of foul trouble, basketball fans across America will know his name on Thursday morning.
6. Jacob Lawson shows up.
Lawson is an ideal defender for Zeller and Watford because he has the length and athletic ability to bother them, but he is a bit of a liability on offense, so the Boilermakers have been playing Rapheal Davis more.
If the Boilermakers play Davis a lot, he’ll need to score to make up for the fact that Christian Watford is more aggressive than him near the basket. Watford has been criticized (by me at times) for not being the inside force he should be. He is improving in that area. Davis might be overmatched, especially on the boards, so Lawson’s minutes will be crucial. Donnie Hale may have to step up, too.
7. Indiana doesn’t play Will Sheehey enough.
The Hoosiers are funny about Sheehey’s minutes, which is strange because he’s one of the most versatile players in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-7 junior comes off the bench for Indiana; with all due respect to Terone Johnson, he’d probably be the leading scorer at Purdue. Sheehey eliminates the problem of having Hulls matched up with Byrd and would possibly force Purdue to consider going with Davis, Lawson and Hammons at the same time because Byrd would have all kinds of trouble with the more athletic Sheehey.
Sheehey went through a recent four-game stretch during which he scored 14 points, went scoreless twice and played fewer than 20 minutes twice. His past two games have been more normal — he scored 12 points in 24 minutes against Penn State and eight points in 23 minutes against Michigan State. If Sheehey plays starter minutes, Purdue could struggle to adjust.
8. Tom Crean gets outcoached.
The consensus among the experts is that Crean lost the coaching battles in IU’s losses to Butler and Wisconsin. Purdue’s Matt Painter is certainly at the least in the conversation with the likes of Brad Stevens and Bo Ryan. Crean sometimes struggles to get his team to play a complete game. The Hoosiers get credit for their win over Michigan State, but here’s the reality: Indiana led Minnesota 52-29 at halftime and barely won; scored 27 points in the second half against Wisconsin and lost, was outscored by six points in the second half at Northwestern and struggled to pull away from Michigan State, even when Keith Appling, MSU’s top scorer, was in foul trouble. Indiana is very good, but not dominant.
9. Purdue plays defense like it usually does.
You know the names. Zeller, Watford, Oladipo, Hulls, Ferrell, Sheehey. Though Indiana plays good defense, those guys are known because they light up the scoreboard. Purdue’s players don’t have the name recognition, but here’s what they are: part of one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten. Purdue allows 63.9 points per game in Big Ten play, not spectacular. But the Boilermakers hold opponents to 39.1 percent shooting, similar to Indiana’s 39.0 mark. Purdue will need to improve its perimeter defense — the Boilermakers allow 38 percent shooting from 3-point range. But opponents have made just 123 of 311 shots inside the arc, just 39.5 percent. The Boilermakers lead the Big Ten in rebounding and are second in blocked shots. Purdue has the edge in a rough-and-tumble halfcourt game.
10. Indiana gets caught looking ahead.
It’s a weird thing to say about a rivalry game, but Indiana’s biggest game this week is Saturday against new No. 1 Michigan. Purdue is a bit of a nuisance on the schedule for the Hoosiers. Because there is not that much hype about Purdue and there won’t be quite the interest that normally surrounds the matchup because the Boilermakers are “down,” the Hoosiers could get caught sleepwalking their way through. They will never tell you that, but they are human, and it’s possible.
Not all of the above need to happen for the Boilermakers to win. Purdue has a young, talented team that can make a great leap forward at any time. The Boilermakers already took a step forward by figuring out how to win a close game. Purdue’s 65-62 overtime win over Iowa was ugly, but important because the Boilermakers had lost many games like that one.
Purdue will be squarely focused on Wednesday’s game. There is no bigger game on the schedule for the Boilermakers than playing their in-state rival at home.
Purdue will need to make shots, be disciplined and avoid foul trouble. If the Boilermakers do those things, they can make Saturday’s Michigan-Indiana game much less important, speed up their ascent back to the top of the Big Ten and end the ‘wait ’till next year’ talk.