The Purdue Boilermakers and Minnesota Golden Gophers enter Sunday’s game in a similar predicament. Neither team is among the worst in the Big Ten. That dishonor seems reserved for Northwestern, Nebraska, and potentially Penn State and neither would be confused for the conference’s elite. But after a disappointing home loss for each team in the Big Ten opener, both are left wondering how good or bad they can be. There is generally a large range within the Big Ten’s middle tier, and Purdue and Minnesota would both rather be playing for an NCAA tournament bid than a trip to the NIT. Falling to 0-2 in conference play makes the latter much more likely.
When evaluating players based on their NBA potential, fringe NBA candidates are often evaluated based on their potential of having one NBA skill. Whether it is outside shooting, ball handling, defense, or rebounding, a decent college player can carve out an NBA career by excelling in a specific area. Similarly, a decent college team can make a run to, and sometimes in the NCAA tournament by excelling in one area. The Boilermakers and Gophers have been decent enough to avoid a devastating loss, but they might not be good enough at anything to win a big game that could put them in the tournament.
The Gophers and Purdue seem to be trying to answer the same question. Can a team make the NCAA tournament by just being okay at everything? The Gophers have the 30th ranked offense, but they are only good at free-throw shooting and only bad at getting shots blocked. Neither of these statistics is predictive in winning basketball games. In those statistics, they peak at 46th in offensive rebounding and are worst at getting to the free throw line, where they rank 186th. Purdue’s statistics are similarly bland. Their offense is ranked 98th, and they are 37th in offensive rebounding and 197th at getting to the line. On defense, Purdue is considerably worse than the Gophers (101st nationally vs. 61st for the Gophers) though defensive rebounding is their only real area concern. As this also happens to compliment Minnesota’s greatest strength, the Gophers need get as many second chance points as possible
Sunday should be a good test for the Gophers and the Boilermakers, and it should be entertaining as well. Under Matt Painter, Purdue has never been one of those glacially paced teams that can be compared to watching paint dry, but they’ve never played fast enough to break any Big Ten stereotypes. For whatever reason, that changed this year, Purdue is off to the races, averaging 71.8 possessions per game, 33rd most in the country. They don’t mess around on the offensive end, where possessions only last 15.3 seconds on average, 16th shortest in the country. The faster pace shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that Purdue is playing matador defense. Their opponents’ possessions are 50th longest in the country.
As one would expect from a decent but not quite good team, the Boilermakers have a lot of decent but not quite good players. AJ Hammons has an elite skill, shot blocking, that could land him in the NBA some day. As the third best shot blocker in the country, Hammons can change the complexion of a game. Deandre Mathieu will want to think twice before flying down the lane. However, it would be a stretch to call Hammons a good player at this point because he can’t stay on the court. He plays in less than half the game on average because he commits more than 5 fouls per 40 minutes and commits turnovers on 26% of possessions that he uses. He’ll certainly be good some day. He might even be great, but he isn’t there yet. On the outside the brothers Johnson, Ronnie and Terone, are collective responsible for half of Purdue’s shot attempts while they are on the floor. Terone is a little taller at 6’4” and attempts more free-throws. Ronnie is a little shorter at 6’1”, and is more of a distributor. Both players get to the free-throw line often, though neither shoot particularly well when they get there. Kendall Stephens has the potential to be a game changer, as he is Purdue’s three-point shooting specialist. He isn’t shy, as evidenced by his 11 three-point attempts against Eastern Michigan. However, if he is off like he was against Ohio State when he was 0-4, he can seem invisible.
There aren’t must win games in early January, and a lot will happen in the final 16 games of the Big Ten season. However, both the Boilermakers and Gophers will make their lives a lot easier if they win on Sunday. The Gophers won’t be favored in any of their next four games, with the easiest of those being a road game at Penn State. Winning at Michigan State and Iowa will be highly unlikely, and beating either Ohio State or Wisconsin at home will be a real challenge. Purdue has an easier stretch coming up, facing all three of the bottom tier Big Ten teams in their next four games. However, they need to pad their record before they face a ten game stretch in February and March when they might not be favored to win a game. This isn’t a must win, but with a loss the must wins will come fast and furious.