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Basket Cases: Hammer and Rails Shares OMHR Thoughts Ahead of Iowa-Purdue

Travis Miller joined us to talk Purdue’s impressive start to the Big Ten season, how this compares to their 2010 squad, and all-knowing and ever-present pessimism

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With the Iowa Hawkeyes (10-10, 1-6) facing the Purdue Boilermakers (18-2, 7-0) tomorrow morning, we asked some questions to Travis Miller, the site manager of Hammer and Rails.

1) Purdue has transitioned seamlessly - which almost seems unfair to say because they’re even better than last year - away from Biggieball and look like bona fide championship contenders about 1/3 of the way through the conference season. Who has stuck out in terms of progress from last year?

I think without Swanigan the team has become more versatile. Yes, Swanigan was a fantastic player, but when he was in, especially with Haas, he was either the focus of everything or the middle would get clogged up with two bigs. That’s why Purdue was often better last year when he played at the 5. It opened things up to a more modern style.

Also, as you saw last year when Iowa won in Iowa City, we tended to default to him if a game was tight. That made it easier for teams to defend us. Now we have five guys who can all do damage or hit the big shot. It makes us harder to defend. This team is so much more balanced offensively. We have four starters that can shoot the three well, a pair of slashers in the Edwards’, a savvy veteran point guard who picks his spots and doesn’t turn the ball over, and a 7’2” giant that cannot be defended 1-on-1. How do you defend that?

2) The Boilermakers are going to play in-your-shorts defense for 40 minutes but it looks like teams who have kept it close were successful attacking the offensive boards. Is this a fool’s errand? And, is there another small crack in Purdue’s tenacious D opponents can exploit?

That has been our one weakness. Tennessee and Western Kentucky were able to exploit it quite well down in the Bahamas. Tennessee was able to out-athlete us and rebound like demons strictly on athleticism. It paid off, too. Against Western Kentucky we shot poorly and pretty much went through the motions. That caused a 24-hour crisis amongst Purdue fans where some were calling for Painter’s head, many were bemoaning the lack of leadership with 4 seniors, and others were worried about an upcoming stretch against tough teams.

The seniors then rallied the team, blew out a very good Arizona team by 25, and haven’t lost since. When Purdue is on I honestly think there are very few teams that can beat them. Even Tuesday night, where Isaac Haas and Dakota Mathias had a combined 4 points (they average 28 together), other picked it up and we destroyed Wisconsin by 28. Sure, this year’s Wisconsin is not Duke or Kansas in a regional, but it was still impressive to have two guys have an off night and still win convincingly.

I think for most teams to beat Purdue Haas is going to have to get into early foul trouble, its shooters are going to have to all have an off night, the Edwardi will have to be kept in check, and you’ll have to have the athletes to exploit us defensively.

3) Matt Haarms has backfilled some of Caleb Swanigan’s minutes marvelously and looks well ahead of Isaac Haas in terms of freshman productivity. What does he provide off the bench? Does Matt Painter have another 7-foot-plus “Haa” kid growing in his garden of big men?

Haarms is a much better defender than Haas. He is lighter and quicker on his feet. He is averaging almost 3 blocks per game in just under 19 minutes and he gives Purdue such a different look we can sometimes play both and it is not the clogged offense that we had with Swanigan and Haas. Haarms also possesses a jump shot. I can probably count on one hand the number of field goal attempts Haas has had in his career outside of 5 feet from the basket. Haarms can actually knock down the midrange jumper and he hit his first career 3 against Wisconsin.

There is still a lot of offensive development coming for Haarms, but it will get there. He struggles at the free throw line compared to Haas (Haarms is 54.1% while Haas is 78.2%) and he is not as stout in the shoulders to take the pounding Haas gets. It will come though.

4) Being a Purdue graduate, I’m attuned to the sometimes pessimistic attitude of the fanbase. How much are fans enjoying this season? Are any waiting for a shoe to drop?

Most of us are enjoying it, but we’re well aware of the tendency to “find the banana peel” as my friends at Boiled Sports have said. We’re on a great two year run. Last year was fun with Biggie and winning the Big Ten, but this year has been even better somehow. At 18-2, No. 3 in the nation, and atop the Big Ten we’re dreaming. This team not only is individually talented, it seems to mesh together better than any team I can remember.

Naturally though, there are comparisons to the last team that got this high: the 2010 team of Hummel, Moore, and Johnson. They were derailed by Hummel’s injury and to this day I think it cost us a Final Four because of the same reasons I think this team can make it. When Hummel got hurt point guard Lewis Jackson was playing in only his 7th or 8th game of the year after missing the first half of the season with a foot injury. We were just rounding into form with him in terms of having that perfect, seamless chemistry when Hummel got hurt. We instantly lost the size and versatility that Hummel brought.

There is still a certain pessimism because we have seen promises of a Final Four die in so many way. We remember collapsing against Little Rock. We remember VCU running and shooting us out of the gym. We remember Hummel. We remember nearly getting beaten by a 16 seed in Western Carolina in 1996. We remember Mark Madsen pretty much assaulting Brad Miller in 1998. We remember losing to friggin’ Wisconsin in 2000. We remember choking in 1988.We remember Big Dog hurting his back in 1994.

It’s been 38 years since we have been to a Final Four, and we have an annoying rival that reminds of our failures (and their successes) in March almost daily even though head to head we have been superior. I think Tuesday against Wisconsin we finally crossed into the territory of, “Okay, if this team can’t do it, what will it take?”

5) Finally, who ya got? how much do you think Purdue wins by?

On paper Purdue should roll. We’re playing excellent basketball right now. Outside of the first 10 minutes Tuesday night we didn’t play particularly well and it devolved into a sloppy game, but we still won by 28. I keep waiting for the “bad game” that every team is capable of having, but it hasn’t come yet. I think these seniors are focused and they want the honor of winning in every Big Ten arena. It was a big point of emphasis when we won at Michigan last week. They want to get Iowa and go for the honor when they play at Illinois later. I’ll say Purdue by 15.

Thanks T-Mill. We hope your team loses by a million. You can pester him on the Twitter about the game (or why Purdue is Our Most Hated Rival) if you’re feeling like it at @JustTMill or the above @HammerAndRails.