WEST LAFAYETTE – Some of the best matchups between big men anywhere in college basketball take place during Purdue practices.
There, Zach Edey and Trevion Williams go to war in the post in battles that are more physical than anything they'll face in most games.
"We just beat each other up, really," Edey said. "We don't take anything off in practice, we go just as hard in practice as we do in a game. We probably go harder in practice, honestly, because we don't have refs. We just hit each other, drop our shoulders, stuff like that."
"It sounds really bad the way he said it," Williams said, laughing, in response to Edey's description. "But that's really how it is."
All of that work in practice shows up in games, where Purdue has multiple All-American-level big men who are battle-tested and ready for anything an opposing team can throw at them. Williams and Edey showed off their full potential as a duo tonight in a 96-52 win over Wright State: Williams had 20 points and 13 rebounds and Edey had 18 and 12 while the pair combined to shoot nearly 70% from the field. For good measure, 6-foot-10 power forward Caleb Furst added 14 points and 11 rebounds for his first career double-double, making it the first time the Boilermakers have had three double-doubles in a game since 1977.
All of that production up front helped the Boilers outrebound the Raiders 56-23 in a a performance that felt almost unfair at times. Wright State likely would not have been able to stop any of Edey, Williams or Furst on the glass individually, let alone all three in the same game. Purdue will face more talented front lines than the one the vertically-challenged Raiders possess, but it will clearly have an advantage on the interior in nearly every game it plays. Illinois' Kofi Cockburn and Michigan's Hunter Dickinson are extraordinarily talented centers, but no one can match Purdue's depth at the position and with Furst's ability to hold his own guarding smaller players on the perimeter – a trait that admittedly has not yet tested against a really good stretch 4 – the Boilers can run out one of the biggest, most physical and most skilled frontcourts any college team will ever see.
The key to the whole enterprise is Williams, who has accepted a bench role early in the season after being named one of the five best centers in college basketball a year ago. Not everyone would be able to humble themselves in that way after such a productive season, but Williams has not skipped a beat coming off the bench and tonight he showed he can still post big numbers even in limited minutes.
"I don't think he agrees with it, but he buys into it," coach Matt Painter said of Williams. "I don't want him to agree with it. I want him to be professional about it, I want him to understand the big picture about it and then go out and know it's not personal. But then you have to go out and play well, have a clear mind. His job when he came to Purdue wasn't to start, it was to help us win. ... I'm not going to (start someone) to appease somebody, I'm going to do what I think is best for Purdue. It does say a lot for Trevion how he's handled it.
"You get Zach Edey wailing on you for 4-5 minutes and you want a break and then here comes Trevion Williams and he's fresh."
That latter piece is the crux of Purdue's strategy: putting together 40 straight minutes of top-quality play at center and wearing down even the best big men the Boilermakers will face. They didn't need 40 minutes combined out of Edey and Williams tonight, but they will come Big Ten season and that duo will be ready to hammer away at stars such as Cockburn and Dickinson.
But Purdue isn't just dominant inside. That would be difficult enough for opponents to defend, but the Boilers have also surrounded their elite big men with a cadre of players who can hit outside shots when defenses collapse on Williams or Edey. Brandon Newman and Sasha Stefanovic combined to go 9 for 15 from 3-point range tonight, while Furst added another 3 and Ethan Morton had one of his own, plus a second that rattled around and out. The Boilers are going to hit open 3s and they're probably going to have plenty of them because Williams and Edey, in addition to commanding plenty of attention from opposing defenses, are also adept passers out of the post. Williams is the best passing big man in the country and it really isn't close.
Add in Jaden Ivey's ability to create his own shot off the dribble – a talent he probably overused somewhat tonight, playing a little bit out of control a few times – and Purdue's offense is maybe the most varied in the country in terms of ways it can beat a defense. That's how the Boilermakers have scored 90 points in three straight games to open the season, a feat they had not accomplished in three consecutive contests since 2000.
Purdue's defense was where its question marks lay prior to the season and those questions have not yet been entirely answered, but Painter said there has been significant improvement game over game to start the year. The bottomline right now: the Boilermakers are very good and they're only getting better. The rest of the Big Ten is on notice.