We’ve been talking about it for a while now, but conference play is finally here! The Big Ten isn’t as good as it usually is this season, which means that Iowa might have a chance to make some noise in the conference this year even though they’re an inexperienced team. That whole “down year” thing in the Big Ten doesn’t apply to Iowa’s first Big Ten opponent, Purdue, though. The Boilermakers are chuggin’ right along in their steam engines and, what do you know, are ranked 15th in the nation!
We talked to Travis Miller from Hammer & Rails to get a better idea of what we should expect from Our Most Hated Rival. He answered our questions about Purdue’s length, how they’ll try to stop Peter Jok, and whether or not this is Purdue’s year to win the Big Ten, among other things. Check it out below.
Max: Purdue is 11-2 this season and has only lost to top ranked Villanova and sixth ranked Louisville. What has been the biggest key to the Boilermakers' success this season?
Travis: I think it is several factors. First, the guard play has been a lot better. Facing a press (as you know) was a huge issue last season. It is why Iowa swept us. It is why we lost a ton of other games. It is why Little Rock came back from down 14 with 4 minutes left to beat us in March. Coach painter made this a point of emphasis in the offseason to fix and so far it has been handled well. P.J. Thompson has an absurd 5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio at the point and freshman Carsen Edwards gives us a speed and attacking element we didn’t have.
Related to all that, I think Purdue is actually better as a team without Rapheal Davis and A.J. Hammons. Most teams don’t get better when you lose guys like that, but let me explain. First, with Davis, he was an offensive liability. After an early season knee injury last year he was never the same in regards to attacking the basket. The guy scored more than 1,000 points in his career, but his jumper wasn’t reliable and he didn’t have that same confidence in attacking the basket that he did before he got hurt. Combined with Johnny Hill lacking any semblance of a jump shot, Purdue was often playing 3-on-5 offensively last year.
Second, the departure of Hammons, who was a major defensive loss, actually opens things up for Purdue. We’re no longer married to “We must always have a lumbering 7-footer on the floor at all times.” We have been able to go small-ball with Swanigan at the five some times this year, often to devastating effect. Our back court has been shooting much better from three (Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline are devastating when open) and Haas cannot be guarded one-on-one offensively. He is nowhere near as good of a defender as Hammons was, but he is still effective just by being 7’2” 290 pounds.
Finally, Caleb Swanigan has been playing like a national Player of the Year candidate. He is a human double-double that rebounds everything in sight.
Max: As previously mentioned, Purdue has only two losses this season - how were these teams able to take advantage of Purdue?
Travis: Against Villanova Purdue got in foul trouble in the first half and had 15 turnovers. In the second half they were within one at several points but couldn’t quite get over the hump. Even then, we had two looks at a three to tie in the final 10 seconds. It was a hell of a game, really.
Against Louisville we played like absolute dogshit in the first half. It was the worst half of basketball we had all year. We were down 33-19 and finished with 17 turnovers, many of which were unforced. Despite being down 11 with 2:30 left we made a very late run and even got it to four with 1:41 left, but it was too little, too late. I will attribute that loss to us simply playing our worst game of the year by far.
Max: The Boilermakers have a clear size advantage against the Hawkeyes with Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan as their big men. What is the best way to attack these two and at least limit their production?
Travis: With Haas, he has struggled defensively at times and the best way is to draw him away from the basket defensively and get him in foul trouble, He still tends to get a few calls against him simply because he is so big and people just run into him.
With Swanigan, good luck. His work ethic is incredible and he is not only a better player this year, but a smarter one. He has mostly avoided foul trouble and his conditioning is such that he is on the floor for 30 minutes a night. He is shooting 59% from the floor and even 52.4% (11 of 21) from three. I have no idea how to stop him.
Max: Who is the most important newcomer to Purdue, and why might this player have an impact against the Hawkeyes on Wednesday?
Travis: Carsen Edwards is really the only newcomer. He was the lone recruited freshman and he has moved into the starting lineup by averaging 10.4 points per game. He still makes freshman mistakes and his shot selection isn’t the greatest, but the kid fearlessly attacks the basket. Once he gets a little more acclimated to the college game he is going to be special.
The only other newcomer this year is Spike Albrecht, who has been out with a back injury for several weeks and likely won’t play.
Max: Peter Jok is obviously Iowa's most important player and his success will likely determine whether or not the Hawks can challenge Purdue in this one. Who will likely defend him and how do you figure the Boilermakers will try to stop him?
Travis: I would imagine that Vince Edwards or Dakota Mathias draws the assignment on him. Vince had a slow start to the year and even has been demoted to the bench, but he is quietly averaging a 12-5-4 for us because teams have to worry about Haas and Swanigan so much. Mathias has been a little bit of a do everything guy. He is shooting 51% from three, averaging a team high 3.8 assists, and he is a much better defender than we give him credit.
Max: Is this the year for Purdue basketball? It feels like this is the year the Boilermakers could break out and run the table in the Big Ten.
Travis: Oh, I hope so, but we are especially guarded. I think we have done enough to show that getting to the second weekend in March is the minimum expectation. The comeback win over Notre Dame shows we can even win a Sweet 16-type of game. Cane we break though and make a Final Four? The talent is there, but I have been a Purdue fan all my life. The talent was there in 1988, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2010, and 2011. It feels like something ALWAYS happens to us. I think we will definitely be there for the Big Ten title. We only play Wisconsin once and it is at home. We get Indiana twice. If we hold serve at home in those three games I really like our chances.
Max: Prediction time - what’s your pick?
Travis: I really like Purdue here. The second half comeback against Notre Dame seemed to energize this team. I know Norfolk State and Western Illinois are nowhere near Big Ten caliber teams, but Purdue just crushed them. We’re playing some really good basketball since the Louisville loss and I know a hot start in the conference is needed. After the dismal football season Purdue fans are enjoying this team a lot.
But hey, thanks for getting Hazell fired.
Thanks to Travis for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on Purdue basketball, check out Hammer & Rails and check them out on Twitter at @HammerAndRails. Go Hawks.