Of all the big games that Arizona put into its nonconference schedule, this will be the biggest of them all. And not just because Purdue was No. 1 in the country a couple of weeks ago and is currently third in the AP Top 25.
The Boilermakers (9-1) are led by 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the reigning national player of the year who is averaging 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. There’s no one in college basketball like him, but he’s not all that makes Purdue as good as it has been so far this season.
To better understand who top-ranked Arizona (8-0) is facing, we reached out to Andrew Ledman of SB Nation sister site Hammer and Rails. Here are his magnificent answers to our tawdry questions:
AZ Desert Swarm: Purdue is an overtime loss at Northwestern away from this being a 1 vs. 2 game. What led to that defeat, and is there anything about how that game played out that is concerning for the rest of the season?
Andrew Ledman: “Like a lot of things in life there’s a complicated answer and then there’s a simple answer. The simple answer was that Purdue didn’t take care of the basketball. They turned it over 17 times versus only 3 times for Northwestern. It’s hard to make up for giving your opponent 14 extra possessions. On a deeper level, Purdue just had no answer defensively for Boo Buie (similar to other guards of his ilk Purdue has played against) for the second straight year and Purdue struggled from three shooting just 26 percent. It’s been those three things that have doomed Purdue in a lot of their recent high-profile losses. It’s not rocket science to see the patterns but at the same time it’s hard to come up with solutions. It’s easy to say, well just don’t turn it over and take better shots, but if it were that easy they wouldn’t pay basketball coaches millions of dollars. It’s concerning for sure, but I think it’s something that Purdue can overcome as they almost did against Northwestern when they pushed it to OT.:
The Boilermakers have four wins over top-15 KenPom teams, sweeping through the Maui Invitational and then outlasting Alabama—whom Arizona plays next week in Phoenix—in their last game. Outside of the presence of the reigning national player of the year, what has been key to the strong start?
“There are two things that really stand out beyond Zach Edey’s marvelous play. First, Braden Smith has grown tremendously from year one to year two. His ability to command the floor and also find the best shot for himself has been a huge addition for this team. He does still have a bit of a turnover problem from time to time but he’s more than made up for it with his stellar play. Second, the addition of Lance Jones has made Braden Smith’s life easier. Jones gives Purdue another ball handler to help with full court pressure. It’s really alleviated a lot of pressure from Smith who is now more free to look for his own points on offense.”
Speaking of POYs, how surprised were you that Zach Edey opted to return to school rather than enter the NBA Draft? What parts of his game need work in order to be successful at the next level?
“Personally I wasn’t surprised. I expected him to come back. If it were the early 1990’s I think he would’ve been gone in a heartbeat, but the NBA is so different now. There aren’t many players like him at all in the NBA right now. We love Zach Edey, obviously, but right now the NBA isn’t looking for 7’4 guys who play almost exclusively around the lane. It’s an unfortunate truth for his future in the league. Edey would need to find a way to show that his defense can keep up with guys near his size who play on the perimeter and take jumpers. It’s a tough ask for someone with his skillset.”
Who else should Arizona be most concerned with on the offensive end?
“Putting Zach Edey aside, which is difficult to do, Arizona needs to pay attention to Smith and his running mate Fletcher Loyer. We’ve already discussed Smith so I want to talk about Loyer. He’s had an up and down season. As the team’s primary three-point specialist when he’s missing shots the fanbase gets restless. It’s me, I’m the fanbase. We as fans expect three-point specialists to come out and be Warriors level Steph Curry but that’s just not how it works. Loyer has the ability to take control of a game as he did against Tennessee in the Maui Invitational where he dumped in 27 points. If he’s on it makes the Purdue offense incredibly potent.”
Arizona just dropped 98 points on Wisconsin, the most the Badgers have allowed since 1994. Can Purdue hang with the Wildcats’ pace or will they try to slow things down and muck it up?
“Yes? This Purdue team is interesting because they really can do both. This is especially true this year as they’ve added the aforementioned Lance Jones and seen the improvement in Braden Smith running the point. Purdue is coming off a game in which they scored 92 against Alabama so they certainly can put the ball in the basket. However, I would expect the defenses of both teams to be amped up and maybe slow down each other a bit there. That being said, Purdue would be just fine slowing it down with Edey getting 40 points. Either way a win is a win. Purdue over the last few seasons has had a magic number of 69 on offense where if they score 69 points before their opponent they’ve won their last 70+ games. It’s a weird stat and may not mean anything but it’s something that is always pointed out.”
Matt Painter is one of the longest-tenured coaches in college basketball and hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament in almost a decade. But after last year’s (slightly more embarrassing than Arizona’s) first-round loss and no Final Fours, despite being No. 1 in three straight seasons, is the fanbase getting restless?
“It’s the internet, there’s always a certain segment of the fanbase that’s going to be restless. The early-season exits have angered fans, rightfully so, and led to a small but vocal Fire Painter crowd. Around our website we call them the Painters and the ‘Ainters. Our fanbase has turned over the last 5 or so years from a group that loves to celebrate our Big Ten Championships, most in the conference, to a fanbase that says over and over again that nothing matters until March. The AD at Purdue is incredibly patient and understands what he has with Painter so I don’t expect a change any time soon, nor would I personally advocate for one.”
Prediction time. Does Purdue hand Arizona its first loss of the season, and only second in nonconference play under third-year coach Tommy Lloyd, or do the Wildcats stay perfect? Give us a score pick.
“This should be a great game, and I’m hoping that despite the game being at the same time as the Indianapolis Colts game which will be just down the road the crowd will be heavily pro-Purdue. That should help because obviously Arizona is a great team and a great program. I actually had the chance to interview Matt Painter a few weeks back and he talked about the fact that when you look at the numbers Purdue’s offense and defense actually are better against Top 50 teams. When they fall into the lower ranked teams they struggle a bit more. He couldn’t explain it and I certainly can’t either. This is all a long way of saying that I think Purdue will put on a great performance in this one. Perhaps it’s my homerism, which I freely admit to, but I’m taking Purdue in a tight one. Purdue 84, Arizona 80.”