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Robbie Who? Purdue Preview

SATURDAY, JANUARY 22, 2011 - 9:00 PM EST
ESPN (Dan Shulman (Play by Play), Dick Vitale (Color), Erin Andrews (Sidelines))
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

When Robbie Hummel went down with his second ACL tear in October a lively debate developed here on TOC and around the sports world over how much this would hurt Purdue's chances this year. Purdue, so far anyway, seems to have rebounded nicely. With apologies to the Ohio State Buckeyes, the best team in conference play so far this year has been the Purdue Boilermakers. Some of this is an artifact of scheduling, of course, as MSU comes in as the first Kenpom top 25 team Purdue will face in the Big Ten. But, despite a close loss at Minnesota and a fortunate home win over Penn State, Purdue has been arguably the best team at both ends of the court in conference play. In the defense-optional Big Ten this year, they've been one of only two teams, along with Ohio State, to hold their conference opponents to under a point per trip (and Ohio State only just got there by throttling conference doormat Iowa at home). And, somewhat more surprisingly, Purdue leads the conference in offensive efficiency as well, putting up an average of 1.17 points per possession.

Purdue faces MSU having lost 2 of their last 3 and they only avoided a three-game losing streak by the narrowest of margins. A 50-50 call that went their way in the closing seconds against Penn State gave JaJuan Johnson the chance to hit the clutch game-winning jumper (pictured at right). With Purdue now at number 8 in Pomeroy's rankings, MSU will face their 11th top 50 opponent in just their 19th game of the season (with Penn State standing just outside at #55). Purdue has played only 5 such games (after Alabama pushed itself to number 50 this week with a win over Kentucky), compiling a 3-2 record. Their best win is still probably an overtime victory at Virginia Tech back in December that locked up this year's Big Ten/ACC Challenge for the good guys. None of this has caused a rush to vacate the Purdue bandwagon like we saw after Robbie Hummel's season-ending injury. They have regrouped after the loss of Hummel to post respectable numbers on offense, and competitive road losses at Minnesota and West Virginia do not diminish the impression that Purdue is still a quality team.

This is certainly a pivotal game for both teams, though it has lost a lot of the luster it was projected to have back in October. Back then this was expected to be a clash between two top-5 national title contenders. Now it's a key conference game between two teams that are pretty good: we're just not sure how good. A lot of the pregame buzz seems to have centered on whether this is a "must-win" game for MSU. I've given my thoughts on this in the Wisconsin preview, and they are more or less unchanged. This is certainly a very important game, especially if MSU maintains conference title aspirations, not to mention another opportunity to rack up a tournament-seed-enhancing win over a top team. But you could argue just as convincingly for its importance to Purdue. It's a home game before they run a 5-game gauntlet of horror that features road matchups against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois. A loss could send them to Columbus already two games behind the Buckeyes (if OSU can beat the Illini in the early game) with their title hopes teetering on the brink.

An in-depth look at the matchups after the jump.

When Purdue Has the Ball

Submitted for your consideration: a Purdue season-to-season comparison.

  eFG% TO% OR% DR% 3PA/FGA 3Pt%
2009-10 49.1% 16.3% 29.6% 68.6% .300 31.9%
2010-11 51.6% 16.5% 35.0% 70.7% .326 37.9%

With or without Robbie Hummel Purdue has always played hard-nosed defense, and making it to the sweet 16 last year without Hummel was largely a function of playing suffocating defense. That's pretty hard to do over the course of a season, and the big question was where the missing offensive production was going to come from. Rather than just one guy stepping up (though Ryne Smith has been a revelation outside the arc) Purdue has just become better as a team in a number of areas. Despite losing Hummel, Purdue has held steady in the turnover department. Meanwhile they've significantly improved their shooting, primarily from three-point range. And they're shooting more threes, perhaps not yet as many as they should be, but up dramatically from last year's last-in-conference performance. And finally, they've stepped it up on the glass, as a team. No one, not even Johnson, is an individual rebounding star (though Moore is very good for a guard). The whole team just seems to crash the glass at both ends.

Purdue has followed a pretty simple formula to success: get more chances than your opponents and do more with them. Purdue leads the conference in both offensive turnover percentage and floor percentage, meaning that they're giving themselves more possessions with a scoring attempt which leads to fewer empty trips. The result is an offense that rarely wows you with its explosiveness but nevertheless usually ends up with more points than the other guys at the end of the game.

Although, as Purdue fans hoped, a number of guys have stepped up to contribute on offense, Purdue is very much a two-man team. JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore are both on the court for over 80% of every game and consume about 27% of the possessions each when they're out there. No one else on the team averages even 24 minutes or 20% usage. Here are your players to watch for Purdue.

  • JaJuan Johnson – was among the last of the Big Ten underclassmen to remove his name from NBA draft consideration and it appears to have been a decision that paid off. He was having a terrific season even before the Penn State game but his game-winning 18-footer seems to have vaulted him into the middle of national player of the year discussions. He's currently averaging 20.5 points per game on a .521/.304/.789 (2pt%/3pt%/FT%) shooting line. At 6'10" he's the only Purdue player taller than 6'5" to see significant minutes and he is their primary post player, but he's not cut from the Trevor Mbakwe or Jared Sullinger mold. He's as likely to beat you with a short jumper as a thunderous dunk and he'll force Izzo to extend the defense to keep him from draining the mid-range twos that are his stock in trade. And while his scoring is improved from a year ago and he's taken his turnover rate down to a miniscule 10.4%, his rebounding rate on both ends is actually down a tick from last year. This may be further evidence of his increasing tendency to drift away from the post and perhaps something the Spartans can take advantage of.

  • E'Twaun Moore – is the other half of Purdue's 1-2 punch and when he's hot he can be lethal, as Spartan fans well remember from the first Purdue game last year. But he can sometimes go cold as well, as Spartan fans will remember from the second Purdue game last year. In fact, he's been scuffling a bit lately (for him) having not hit 20 points in any of his last five games. He did get 16 against Penn State and is shooting .463/.394/.686 for the season. He's adept at driving the lane if Johnson pulls his man outside or hitting the three if teams try to collapse on Johnson in the post. They are very good complements for each other and both are strong candidates for All-Big Ten first team this year.

  • Lewis Jackson – has done an acceptable job at point guard, averaging 4 assists and 2 turnovers per game in 24 minutes with a shooting line of .555/.375/.659. His job is to keep the offense flowing, get the ball to Moore or Johnson, and hit the open shot when available.

  • Ryne Smith - has been the biggest surprise for Purdue this year. After being nearly invisible for most of the non-conference schedule he blew up at the start of the Big Ten season, putting up a four-game stretch in which he hit 18 of 27 threes. He's come back to earth a bit in the last two games, so it remains to be seen if Purdue has truly found the elusive "third option".

The other guards are sophomore D.J. Byrd, who brings toughness and some scoring, freshman Terone Johnson, who shoots more threes than is advisable with a 26% success rate, and sophomore Kelsey Barlow, a strong defender whose offensive game is improving. Johnson will be primarily spelled by freshmen Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll.

When Michigan State has the Ball

The normal formula for trying to beat Purdue has been to try and get JaJuan Johnson in foul trouble. Not only does this create an advantage inside but Purdue's guard-heavy offense doesn't seem to function very well with him out of the game. That said, he's been excellent at staying out of foul trouble this year, drawing a microscopic 1.7 fouls per 40 minutes of action with no foul-outs. By comparison, nobody on MSU's entire roster is below 2.0. Nonetheless, MSU does have something of a size advantage in this game and they would do well to try and take advantage of it as well as make Johnson work on the defensive end. We might see more of Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix this game, as Nix has the size to give Johnson some trouble and Sherman is less likely to be pushed around in the post than he has been by some of the recent bigs they've faced.

Pomeroy sees this as a 68-60 Purdue win in a 67-possession game and the Spartans will have their work cut out for them. Purdue doesn't have a lot of weaknesses on defense. They play aggressive man-to-man which they extend to the whole half-court. Opponents are as unsuccessful at shooting threes as they are at shooting twos. And Purdue forces a lot of turnovers, so the first order of business will be to continue to hang on to the ball, which they have done a decent job at in the last few games. And, since Purdue extends their defense, MSU is going to have to try to take advantage of that by driving to the rim, as daunting a task as that has been lately. And when they do, they'll need to crash the glass as well, since Purdue has been merely very good at getting defensive rebounds. All the jump-shots the Spartans took against Illinois may have been a result of the Illini defense collapsing inside, as Tom Izzo said. But if there were ever a game where "settling" for jumpshots rather than driving the lane is unlikely to be successful, this is probably the one.