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Why New No. 1 Purdue Is a Legitimate National Title Contender

Matt Painter has constructed a talented and well-fitting roster led by a future NBA guard and two elite centers.

Chaos atop the men’s polls—Duke dropping Gonzaga, Ohio State dropping Duke, Gonzaga losing to Alabama, normal college basketball stuff—has led us to Purdue. So it’s time to talk about the Boilermakers, and what might be Matt Painter’s best team ever: an undefeated start putting them on pace to, at the very least, eclipse a 30-win 2017–18 season. This is a moment of national relevance for a program that didn’t take a single transfer and doesn’t rely on a bluechip freshman to carry the load. This is not a circumstantial ascendance to No. 1, but the sound of a contender emerging.

Serendipitous as it was, this writer was present in West Lafayette for a pair of Boilermakers wins last week, as Purdue disposed of Florida State on Tuesday, then weathered a furious comeback from a Keegan Murray–less Iowa on Friday. Here’s what you need to know about the nation’s newly minted No. 1 team, which has earned the mantle for the first time in program history.

1. Above all else, Purdue is going to get easy buckets. Through eight games, the Boilermakers lead the nation in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric and are making 59.5% of twos and 44% of threes. They haven’t played a true road game yet (and to be fair, most top teams haven’t), but they’ve faced four quality high-major opponents, including a sweep of North Carolina and Villanova on consecutive days the week of Thanksgiving. While Purdue’s conversion rates are a bit unsustainable, the means are legitimate, with a well-balanced offense that doesn’t skew unsustainably toward any one player. And apart from a near-collapse against Iowa’s second-half press Friday, the Boilers have mostly taken care of the ball and limited turnovers.

Purdue guard Jaden Ivey reacts after dunking vs Iowa

Jaden Ivey is averaging 15.9 point so far as a sophomore.

2. It seems like Jaden Ivey can swing any game at pretty much any time. Purdue’s sophomore star has already exceeded the considerable preseason expectations set for him, emerging as a Player of the Year candidate and pairing seemingly boundless energy with an improved shooting stroke (he’s made 40% of his first 35 three-point attempts). He won’t be at Purdue past this season—Ivey appears likely to be the first guard selected in next year’s NBA draft—but he gives the Boilermakers a championship-level ceiling. There’s nobody else like him in men’s college basketball right now.

Ivey’s dominance means the Boilermakers contain multitudes. They can identify as a half-court-oriented, ball-moving team built around their bigs and still effectively run off stops and 50-50 balls thanks to the relentlessness and velocity of Ivey’s transition play. Purdue prefers to stay solid rather than gamble defensively (its 15.3% defensive turnover rate is on the very low end nationally), but rarely get out of position as a unit, and Zach Edey and Trevion Williams have dominated the defensive glass to compensate. It’s Ivey who breaks from the philosophy and has extra leeway to take some risks, and his quickness to the ball inspires fear in the passing lanes. Any possession where he can grab the ball before the defense is set can lead to points for Purdue. Props to Painter for giving Ivey the freedom to do it.

3. While defenses are worrying about containing Ivey, there’s also the 7' 4" Edey, who has made significant strides in terms of his confidence, finishing ability and free throw shooting, and can pretty much bludgeon any opponent who doesn’t devote enough attention to the paint. He’s too large for most teams to defend straight up on the block, and if you front him, all of Purdue’s guards are good enough passers to throw it over the top and get him a deep paint touch. If you allow Edey to catch the ball within five feet of the rim, there’s a high chance he’ll finish or get fouled. And … he’s shooting 72% from the field and 81% from the foul line. While he’s playing just 45.6% of available minutes (and in certain situations, he can clog the paint a bit too much), Edey is a unique conundrum for pretty much every opponent, and the constant double teams he sees helps open up shooters around him. Plus, Purdue clearly rotates the best pair of centers in the country.

4. The other end of that platoon is Williams, a senior who’s deservedly received the appropriate credit for accepting a bench role after starting nearly every game the past two seasons. He’s still playing more minutes than Edey, so the sixth-man label is mostly nomenclature. And you can respectfully argue that Williams has been Purdue’s most important player in the early going: In addition to being the Boilermakers’ emotional leader, Williams has single-handedly propped up their bench units, allowing Painter to give Ivey additional rest without too much fear of siphoning away leads. He’s worked himself into excellent shape and become a much more mobile defender when moving around on the perimeter and defending ball screens. Being the occasional focal point of lineups has allowed Williams to showcase himself as a truly exceptional passer, finding cutters and skipping passes to the opposite side of the floor while reading whatever pressure he sees. Williams is a fan favorite and seems to relish his ability to shift the energy of games with big plays. His lunch-pail approach goes a long way.

5. Part of why Purdue is so difficult to prepare for is that it’s basically two different offenses, depending on which center is on the floor. When Edey is in the game, it can funnel the ball inside or move it around the perimeter and play off of Ivey’s drives. Painter primarily pairs Edey with top-flight shooter Sasha Stefanovic and generally astute freshman Caleb Furst, providing adequate spacing while staying big up front. While Edey isn’t much of a passer yet, he’s figured out how to protect the basketball and maximize his impact as a funnel for defensive attention.

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When Williams replaces him, the Boilermakers’ ball movement becomes way more dynamic: He can ping-pong passes to shooters and into the paint and has the freedom to take risks as he sees fit. Apart from Ivey, Purdue’s guards aren’t particularly creative, but it has a bunch of guys who are capable three-point threats and smart ball-movers who understand their roles, which is simpatico with Williams’s ability to periodically be a focal point.

Painter can mix and match those minutes among pesky Isaiah Thompson, the bigger Eric Hunter Jr. and Brandon Newman, and jumbo wing Ethan Morton, who’s one of the team’s best passers and could see his minutes increase as the season goes on. Mason Gillis has been impactful as the backup power forward since returning from his suspension, and he allows Purdue to play smaller and faster in tandem with Williams. Not only do opposing teams have to understand the coverages on Edey and worry about Ivey getting to his strong hand, but they also have to be astute enough to guard the different types of looks they’ll see when those guys aren’t in the game.

Purdue center Trevion Williams looks to pass

Williams has quickly adjusted to coming off the bench as a senior.

6. Not to be forgotten, Stefanovic is one of the best shooters in the country and the owner of a 40% three-point clip over his four college seasons. As evidenced by his 23 points against North Carolina, he’s the fourth player capable of swinging a game in Purdue’s favor. While Stefanovic sees plenty of opportunities from simply sharing the court with his star teammates, when things stagnate, the Boilermakers can run sets for him to shoot off of movement and run him off screens. He’s also a canny passer and leads the team in assists, and can punish teams who over pursue him on the perimeter by finding the open man. Stefanovic is the weak link defensively, but Purdue’s typically conservative scheme and Ivey’s ability to guard bigger wings helps to hide him. His shooting will be a major equalizer in conference play, when games inevitably get bogged down.

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7. If there’s an Achilles’ heel here, it’s Purdue’s lack of a true, high-level pass-first guard—Ivey can run the offense and dominate the ball just fine but still falls prone to moments of wildness and plays more of a decide-then-react style, as opposed to being a true setup man. The Boilermakers bizarrely struggled with Iowa’s full-court press, although that mostly fell on Painter for not adjusting quickly enough with a better strategy to break it. Teams that win in March often lean on experienced, unflappable guard play, and we won’t know for a while exactly where that’s going to land for Purdue. The hope is that Ivey will continue his maturation, limit the careless ball-security turnovers and becomes the guy making decisions in the half court when it matters. That scenario seems more likely than one of the other guys blossoming as a point guard midseason. The Boilers will go as far as Ivey ultimately takes them, which likely means a bump or two in the road.

8. Still, it might be a while before we see Purdue lose. It doesn’t play an opponent with a top-50 offense or defense until Jan. 3 against Wisconsin, at home. Its first major road test is Michigan on Jan. 11. The Big Ten isn’t quite as intimidating as we thought right now, and the Boilermakers play Ohio State only once, at home. Gonzaga has two losses and exactly one intimidating game left. Baylor, Duke and Kansas look most capable of challenging. But this is all lining up for Purdue to stay atop the rankings deep into conference play. It’s easy to buy what the Boilers are selling: They play a tough, unselfish and uncomplicated style of basketball, there’s enough experience and continuity to think it’s legitimate, and there’s plenty of star power to get them across the finish line. Championship teams require the right collision of talent and timing, and the Boilermakers are clearly one of the most legitimate candidates to get the job done. 

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