IOWA (16-6, 7-4) VS. PURDUE (12-10, 5-6)
Now just a game out of first in the Big Ten, Iowa will look for an elusive road victory in West Lafayette Wednesday night against Purdue. Tipoff from Mackey Arena is set for 6 p.m. Iowa time, with TV coverage on BTN.
If you thought Iowa's season was weird, Purdue's has been totally batshit insane. The Boilermakers are 12-10 overall, with blowout wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Virginia, and inexplicable losses to Nebraska and Texas. You could chalk it all up to home/road splits, and that's largely correct, but Purdue also got blown out at home by Illinois a couple of weeks ago.
Most of Purdue's issues are on offense. The Boilers are 73rd nationally in offensive efficiency, and ahead of only Northwestern in Big Ten play. In nine of their ten losses (Texas the only exception), Purdue was held below 1.00 points per possession. They scored 37 points on 62 possessions at Illinois, in what might well be the worst offensive performance by a major conference team this season. The Boilers are 256th nationally in effective field goal rate; only Northwestern is worse in the conference. They make just 46 percent of two-point attempts (290th nationally) and get one in ten shot attempts sent back (281st nationally). They also don't draw fouls (332nd nationally in foul rate), which is probably fine; they shoot just 66 percent from the free throw line, ahead of only Rutgers and Nebraska among Big Ten teams. The only thing Purdue does well on offense is rebound, in part because there are SO MANY REBOUNDS.
Matt Painter is a smart coach, though, so he has devised a strategy to win with an offensively-challenged team: Drag things down to a Wisconsin-like pace and defend the bejeezus out of the ball. Only the Badgers and Virginia are playing at a slower pace than Purdue among major-conference teams, and as bad as the Boilers' 47.6 percent effective shooting rate is, the 46.5 percent shot by their opponents is even worse. Purdue opponents are making an absurdly bad 28.7 percent of three-point attempts, turning the ball over at a relatively high rate, and getting one in nine shots blocked. Sure, Purdue's offense is dreck, but your offense is going to be equally dreckful when they're done with you.
Everything runs through Trevion Williams, the 6'9", 270-pound sophomore forward who leads the team in scoring (11.3 ppg), rebounds (7.7 rpg), usage rate, offensive and defensive rebound rate, fouls drawn, free throws taken, and two-point shot attempts. Williams didn't start until early December, but has increasingly become the focal point of the Boilermaker system at both ends of the court.
Williams' rise has meant less time for seven-foot unicorn Matt Haarms, who has only started three games since mid-December. Haarms was injured in the loss at Nebraska, then injured again at Michigan in early January, and has been inconsistent since. In a microcosm of Purdue's season, Haarms has remained a formidable defensive presence in the lane when he plays, but he hasn't topped 11 points since January 2 and is averaging 5.5 points in Purdue's last eight games (and yet is still their third-leading scorer). Six-eight senior Evan Boudreaux has actually started at power forward in Purdue's last three games, although his production has been equally spotty. Painter will also give a handful of minutes to sophomore forward Aaron Wheeler (6'9", 205), but his offense has been so inefficient that it hasn't much mattered.
In the backcourt, Purdue relies on a five-man rotation: Guards Eric Hunter (6'4", 175, 10.2 ppg, 2.8 apg) and Jahaad Proctor (6'3", 205, 9.3 ppg) are the best perimeter scorers, with sophomore Sasha Stefanovic (6'4", 195, 9.0 ppg, 39% 3P) and Hunter as deep threats. Forward Nojel Eastern (6'7", 225, 5.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and guard Isaiah Thompson (6'1", 165, 5.5 ppg) also get minutes but aren't huge factors on either end of the court.
Despite the bounty of top-end centers in the conference this year, Purdue hasn't faced many of the league's best posts yet. They played Minnesota before the second Haarms injury and still let Daniel Oturu go for 29 and 11 in a double overtime win over the Gophers. Illinois mauled them twice, with Cockburn scoring 34 total. Jalen Smith scored a game-high 18 in a seven-point loss at Maryland. On paper, this Purdue team looks woefully undersized up front. Guarding Luka Garza with a 6'9" forward isn't generally a recipe for success. With the present facsimile of Haarms in the lineup, this could be a monster game for Garza; if so, Iowa stands a legitimate chance of winning.
Then again, Mackey might be the worst gym in the conference for Iowa (Breslin and Pinnacle are right up there); the Hawkeyes are 1-6 there under McCaffery, with an average losing margin of 12.5, and have lost the last two games there by a total of 38 points. If Purdue makes shots there, it's lights out in a hurry -- just ask Michigan State -- and there really isn't that much an opponent can do about it. Yes, this game feels like the unstoppable force against the immovable object, but it's also far more about what Purdue can do than anything Iowa does in response.