- Is Purdue for real? Here's why you shouldn't disregard the Boilermakers. Plus, Kansas's Big 12 streak is very much alive, we catch up with Texas Tech's Keenan Evans and more.
Let’s talk about Purdue.
On an episode of SI Now last week, host Amy Campbell put it this way: “Nobody’s really talking about them. Why is everybody sleeping on Purdue?” And my answer was, in short, that it’s because they are Purdue—not one of the usual headline-grabbing powers like Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, nor a brand-name mid-major like Gonzaga or Wichita State, nor some true underdog story from out of nowhere. The Boilermakers are a traditionally solid Big Ten program, but one that has only made one Sweet 16 since 2010, and last reached the Elite Eight in 2000. They don’t have a signature system or gimmick. They don’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans. They’re Purdue.
Here’s the thing: This year, just being Purdue means the Boilermakers are really good. Like, remember-them-while-everyone-else-in-your-bracket-pool-is-picking-the-usual-suspects good.
This isn’t exactly going out on a limb. They’re ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. They’re 19–2. They haven’t lost in two months. They’re ranked second overall in Kenpom.com’s team efficiency rankings. But still, it kind of feels like people aren’t talking all that much about Purdue. So let’s.
One of the more impressive things to consider about this year’s Boilermakers is that they are doing all this the year after losing the Big Ten Player of the Year, forward Caleb Swanigan, who declared for last year’s NBA draft and was picked by the Blazers in the first round. Despite that, what was a solid Sweet 16 team last season now ranks fifth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency. To put that in context, no other team with a top-five offense has a defense better than 27th, and no team with a top-five defense has an offense better than 38th. That balance is in part because they rank first nationally in three-point percentage at 43.7%—and hit 20 against Iowa on Saturday—and fourth in two-point defense while sending opponents to the free throw line at the country’s fourth-lowest rate. They are not great on the glass, ranking toward the median both nationally and within the Big Ten, but as a deficiency, it’s only a highly relative one. This is a team that does a lot of things well.
Now, the 15-game win streak Purdue is riding hasn’t come through a murderer’s row of opponents. The Arizona team they beat to begin it was closing out its freefall through the Bahamas, and since then Michigan and Butler have been Purdue’s only high-quality wins. But this sure looks like the best team Matt Painter has put together over his 13 seasons in West Lafayette and a squad that could top last season’s Sweet 16 trip. It’s an experienced team, with four senior starters from that run, and the lone exception is sophomore guard Carsen Edwards, one of the top contenders to succeed Swanigan as Big Ten Player of the Year. Among the other candidates is teammate Vincent Edwards (unrelated), a 6’8” stretch four who’s making 46.2% of his threes, which is just barely better than Dakota Mathias’ 45.8% and behind P.J. Thompson’s team-leading 51.0%. Center Isaac Haas is a 7’ 2” high-efficiency post-up machine (a whopping 72% of his possessions used, according to Synergy) who’s backed up by a 7’ 3” freshman in Matt Haarms, who happens to have the sixth-best shot-blocking rate in the country.
So, yeah, Purdue’s got some stuff. There’s experience, quality guard play, interior size, ample three-point shooting—the kinds of components that we look for when sizing up real contenders come March. My guess is we’ll be talking about them plenty by then.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to exchange Royal Rumble predictions, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Have you seen the Big 12 standings lately? If you’ve been listening to the buzz over the last month or so, this was supposed to be the year things changed—the year Kansas was too flawed and the rest of the league too strong, and so the Jayhawks would not claim at least a share of the Big 12 title for the first time since 2003–04, Bill Self’s first season in Lawrence. Just last week some genius even gave them a whopping three-warthog grade. And yet, here on Jan. 22, nearly at the league schedule’s midpoint, there is Kansas alone atop the Big 12 standings.
Obviously there is still a ways to go before the Jayhawks extend that absurd 13-season streak, and they could be joined in first place as soon as Tuesday. But it’s still worth pausing to note—after a week where Kansas won at West Virginia and came back late against Baylor, and the questioning that preceded it—how very much of a contender it remains. The Jayhawks have not erased all of their flaws; they still lack interior depth, and will no longer get a midseason boost from freshman Billy Preston (more on that below). But this has become a very good team. Kansas had been dead last in free throw rate throughout non-conference play, but its rate has thus far doubled in Big 12 games (from 18.2 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, to 37.4 per 100). Devonte’ Graham is taking well to a leading man role. Svi Mykhailiuk is shooting like a madman (51.0% from three in Big 12 play). Udoka Azubuike is leading the country in shooting percentage (77.3%!). Malik Newman just had his breakout game.
And now, heading into the last six weeks of the regular season, it all adds up to a familiar scenario: the Jayhawks on top, and the rest of the Big 12 in pursuit. At least for now.
1. Saint Mary’s: The Gaels seized control of the WCC with Thursday’s comeback win over Gonzaga in Spokane and have now won 14 in a row overall, dating to Thanksgiving weekend. They're the WCC’s last undefeated team and should be favored in just about every game the rest of the way, with the possible exception of the Feb. 10 rematch with Gonzaga.
2. Kansas State: An afterthought in much of the Big 12 gushing, the Wildcats are now tied for third in the league after walloping Oklahoma and edging TCU at home for easily their two best wins of the season. Dean Wade has scored 20-plus in three straight.
3. Providence: Nobody wants to visit the Dunkin’ Donuts Center these days. After upsetting Xavier there two weeks ago, the Friars held home court last week against both Butler and Creighton. Ed Cooley’s defense has held opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage in Big East play.
4. Alabama: One of America’s most mercurial teams snapped in-state rival Auburn’s 14-game winning streak and is now just a half-game back of the Tigers for second in the SEC. This week the Tide will meet Oklahoma in a non-conference showcase of two the country’s two best freshman point guards, Collin Sexton and Trae Young.
5. SMU: Just as the Mustangs’ season was starting to slide, they went into Wichita and pulled off a shocker. (Sorry.) Junior guard Shake Milton was simply excellent in that game, scoring 33 points while shooting 11 for 14 from the field, including 5 for 6 from three. They rounded out the week with a home win over Tulane.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s center
The Australian shot 68.6% over the Gaels’ two wins last week, including a 12-for-15 showing (paired with 12 rebounds) to help fell Gonzaga. He’s posted an offensive rating of 127.0 of better in 10 of his last 12 games.
Junior: Martaveous McKnight, Arkansas-Pine Bluff guard
A first-year transfer from Itawamba Community College, McKnight has helped his Golden Lions go from 0–14 in non-conference play to 6–0 in the SWAC thanks to performances like his 25 points and six assists vs. Alcorn State and 39 points (on 13-of-20 shooting) at Prairie View A&M.
Sophomore: Omer Yurtseven, North Carolina State center
The Wolfpack split two games last week, beating Wake Forest and falling to Miami, but Yurtseven shone in both, putting up 22 points and eight boards against the Demon Deacons and scoring 28 points on 12-of-15 shooting against the Hurricanes.
Freshman: Jordan Goodwin, Saint Louis guard
The rookie Billiken flirted with back-to-back triple doubles, pulling off the feat once vs. Duquesne (13 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) before just barely missing it while still having an incredible game at UMass (19 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists). And as a bonus: the game before those two, he had nine points, nine boards and 11 assists.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Texas Tech guard Keenan Evans, who is averaging 16.6 points and 3.3 assists for the Red Raiders. So, Keenan, tell us about the best...
...superhero. “I like Static Shock. In the cartoons, he was a real cool dude. His power was electricity and not a lot of superheroes have that. He just had a lot of swag to him. I’ve watched pretty much all the episodes. I’m one of those guys that’s really into DC and Marvel type of stuff.”
...fruit. “Pineapples. We have them in our weight room so I grab a little pack all the time. My mom was the best at picking them out and cutting them up. She would get other fruit like strawberries and grapes and mix them all together.”
...way to pass time on road trips. “Watch Netflix. Right now I’m watching this show called Travelers but I watch so many shows, whether it’s Prison Break, Breaking Bad, just everything. I actually just started [Travelers]—I’m on episode five, maybe. These people came from the future back to the past trying to save the world. They know what’s gonna happen so they’re trying to change some events. I was just looking for something new and it had five stars, so why not?”
Social Media Post of the Week
Assigned Viewing: Virginia at Duke, Saturday at 2 p.m. ET on CBS
The ACC’s top two contenders nearly mirror one another’s imbalances: the Cavaliers have a much stronger defense than offense, and Duke can score as well as anybody but are held back by their suspect play on the other end. Duke is, statistically, significantly weaker on D than Virginia is on offense, for what it’s worth, but on the other end of the floor it’s a major strength against a major strength, which should provide a worthwhile test for both. The Cavs’ defense, thanks to Tony Bennett’s trusty and flustering Pack-Line, ranks first nationally in defensive efficiency, while Duke has the country’s second-most efficient offense. The Blue Devils are accustomed to a much faster tempo than Virginia allows opponents to play, and it will be interesting to see how Duke’s extremely young lineup deals with a defense that can test even the most poised veteran’s patience.
As for the other side of the matchup, Mike Krzyzewski has patched his leaky defense by deploying the 2–3 zone for stretches this season, and it helped key last week’s comeback at Miami. But according to Synergy Sports, Virginia is in the country’s 97th percentile in scoring against zones, averaging 1.149 points per possession. Duke’s usual fix may not be applicable. Either way, this should be a game where we get a good look at where each of these teams stand.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• If you were wondering whether Duke might be good again next year, this weekend they received a commitment from five-star forward Zion Williamson, meaning they have now landed the top three recruits in the Class of 2018, plus the top point guard in Tre Jones, a consensus top-10 prospect himself. So yeah, they will be good. Check out Chris Johnson’s more in-depth explanation of what Williamson’s commitment means at this link, and his longer profile of Williamson from last fall too.
• As referenced above, Kansas is no longer waiting on freshman big man Billy Preston to be cleared to join the team, as Preston has signed with the Bosnian professional team BC Igokea to prepare for the draft. Preston had been held out of action since getting into a one-car accident on campus in November, which prompted the school to investigate the “financial picture” related to the vehicle. Bill Self said the school had been hopeful for NCAA clearance to come soon and that it was delayed due to follow-up questions after Kansas had presented its findings. Preston, a McDonald’s All-American last year, told The Kansas City Star, “I’ll be a Jayhawk forever.”
• The Champions Classic will now officially open the college basketball season next year. That should make for a more fun opening night than usual, but there’s only so much attention college hoops can hope to garner in the thick of football season. This may be a start.
• The Big 12 sure is eating itself alive. Texas Tech has now lost three of four; West Virginia lost two in a row before beating Texas this weekend; Oklahoma just fell to Kansas State and Oklahoma State; Baylor’s tumbled all the way to 2–5. That’s the downside of such a competitive league, I suppose. They’re just gonna keep pulling each other down the polls.
• Elsewhere in the Big 12, Jaylen Fisher’s season-ending knee injury is terrible news and a big blow to TCU, which is also now 2–5 in the conference. Alex Robinson stepped up with 17 assists against Iowa State last week, but Fisher will be tough to replace full-time, especially as a shooter.
• Remember Texas A&M? The Aggies were one of the most impressive surprises of non-conference play, then thanks to a mess of suspensions started 0–5 in the SEC. This is still a talented team with problematic size inside, and this week they righted the ship somewhat by beating Ole Miss and Mizzou. Right now the Bracket Matrix has them as a 9-seed in the tournament. If a seeding in that range were to happen, and the Aggies were to have their full complement of players, they could be a mid-range seed no one wants to see. But first they’ve got to sort themselves out.
• Take the time to read this profile of Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin by S.L. Price. It’s a remarkable story, remarkably told.
• Another good story you should read here on SI dot com: Jeremy Fuch’s feature on 5’5” Mount St. Mary’s guard Junior Robinson.
• I’d been high on Wichita State once they got Markis McDuffie back, but the Shockers dropping games to SMU and Houston last week is a bit of a red flag. Their defense currently ranks 57th in adjusted efficiency, their worst mark since 2010, well before they became the Wichita State we now know. Gregg Marshall has some work to do. Guessing he’s up for it.
• Very quietly, Louisville is 5–1 and second in the ACC. Trips to Miami and Virginia the next two weeks mean that may not last long.
• Referee Ted Valentine and North Carolina guard Joel Berry hugged it out before Saturday’s game, two weeks after Valentine turned his back on Berry during a game. Berry said Valentine apologized. That’s good.
• This short story from John Edgar Wideman is the best thing I read last week.