WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue basketball is back. The Boilermakers got some extended time off near the mid-point of their schedule after a game against Michigan, set for Wednesday in Ann Arbor, was postponed because of coronavirus cases within the Wolverines' program.
That mean No. 7 Purdue has only played once in the last 10 days and had five full days off before it returns to action with a matchup against Nebraska at Mackey Arena tonight. The Boilermakers took a day off early in the week and then held four straight practices during which they tried to shore up some of the fundamentals, especially on defense, that have eluded them for long stretches this season. Those stretches have often come after Purdue has built a lead and the Boilermakers have let teams back into games too often in recent weeks.
"We're just trying to reinforce ... not getting carried away with things," coach Matt Painter said. "When we get the 8-, 10-, 12-point lead, it gives somebody the right to shoot a 35-footer on the run. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but we have a couple decisions, a couple shots when we get leads that we didn't have (before) and that's how we got the lead. We take good shots, we make good decisions and that's what we have to do and just stay consistent, hit a lot of singles and not always go for the home run."
The Boilermakers were better on defense against Penn State in a 74-67 victory, but they still permitted Nittany Lions star Jalen Pickett to rack up 21 points and 10 assists and Painter was unhappy with the way his team stopped the ball on occasion, an issue that also cropped up against Wisconsin standout Jonathan Davis, who poured in 37 points in a Badgers victory Jan. 3 at Mackey. Purdue faces a similar challenge tonight in Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens, a five-star true freshman playing nearly 35 minutes per contest and averaging 15.9 points.
The difference with McGowens is he is not particularly efficient. He is far and away Nebraska's best player and the Cornhuskers treat him that way, putting the ball in his hands on a consistent basis, but he is shooting just 39% from the field and barely 25% from beyond the arc. The 3-point shooting is not a problem limited to McGowens: the Cornhuskers are shooting only 29% from deep, 332nd in the country. No Nebraska player shoots better than 37.5% from long range.
Huskers coach Fred Hoiberg took the job at his hometown team three years ago with designs on bringing his creative, up-tempo offense to the Big Ten after having success with it at Iowa State in the mid-2010s. The inability to hit from beyond the arc has hampered Nebraska's development significantly under Hoiberg and it has not yet found a way to play defense well enough to really compete in the nation's most rough-and-tumble conference. In his three years at the helm, Hoiberg is 5-40 in Big Ten play, fewer wins than former coach Tim Miles had in his final season in Lincoln.
The Cornhuskers like to get up and down the court, but they struggle to defend if a game turns into a track meet: Nebraska is giving up 78.4 points per game, 342nd in the country, and opponents are shooting 36.4% from 3-point distance on a ton of attempts, suggesting the Huskers aren't getting set on defense quickly enough or their rotations are not up to par. Purdue, boasting the No. 1 offense in the country according to Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency rankings, should be perfectly-suited to exploiting some of those issues. The Boilermakers move the ball as well as anyone and they have recently discovered an extra outside shooter in Mason Gillis, who is knocking down 56% from deep and is 8 for 11 in his last three games.
The real trouble for Purdue could come on the defensive glass. All of Nebraska's misses from beyond the arc mean there will be plenty of long rebounds for the Boilermakers to corral and they have not been particularly good at limiting second-chance opportunities recently. The Cornhuskers' best chance to hang around in this game is to crash the offensive glass and try to grab a lot of extra possessions, neutralizing some of Purdue's offensive advantage.
The Boilermakers should win this game. True, Nebraska has been relatively competitive against conference title contenders Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin in recent weeks, but if Purdue is going to meet its lofty expectations this season, it shouldn't be close against a team that struggles to defend as much as the Huskers do. The Boilermakers should also get a boost of energy from playing in front of their student section for the first time in 42 days.