A 20-4 run over the last nine minutes or so of basketball that Xavier has played has imbrued the fan base with a level of confidence that was entirely absent when the Muskies were down ten and looking altogether poor against a good Vanderbilt team. That new level of good feeling will be put to the test Saturday at 3pm (on ESPNU/ESPN3!) when Purdue comes into the Cintas Center. Vandy will go down in Xavier's resume as a tough - maybe the team's toughest - road game, but Purdue has a chance to be the best team Xavier plays all year.
After a couple of warmup games against teams that a pick-up squad of our readers could beat (not actually), Purdue knocked off very good Iona and Temple teams in San Juan. The lone blemish in their record came that Sunday in Puerto Rico in the form of a nine-point loss to Alabama, who Ken Pomeroy lists as the 14th-best team in the nation. That blip on the radar was soon forgotten with an 80-37 beating of Western Michigan and a victory over Coppin State in which the Boilermakers put up 78 points in 59 possessions. Their last time out, Purdue beat up a solid Miami (FL) team on the way to an eleven-point win.
A lot of the focus in the run up to this game will focus on Robbie Hummel, and rightly so. He's a great player with a great story - and by all accounts a great guy - and we'll get to him in a minute. The number one thing that jumped out at me about Purdue, though, is how rarely they turn the ball over. They currently lead the nation in TO% (percentage of possessions in which they turn the ball over, for the layman) at 13.3%. For comparison’s sake, Xavier is 69th in the country at 18.7%. Last year, Wisconsin led the nation at 13.4%, and SDSU was second with 14.3%. Only 5.2% of Purdue's possessions end with an opponent getting a steal.
Of course, holding onto the ball ultimately facilitates Purdue's offense, of which Robbie Hummel is the focal point. The senior, coming off of back-to-back seasons lost to knee injuries, is posting 19.0/4.9/1.5 with 1.8 blocks per game. Standing 6'8" and shooting .465/.449/.800, he's a matchup nightmare at either forward position and is certainly the best front court player Xavier has seen this year. He's also blocking 1.8 shots per game and has turned the ball over 6 times in 8 games; Hummel is just about everything a coach could ask for.
Complementing Hummel on the perimeter is senior guard Ryne Smith. After averaging 6.2 points and shooting .441 from deep on last year's loaded team, the 6'3" gunner is putting up 11.8/2.0/1.5 on a sensational .517/.509/.667 shooting line. This isn't a product of him picking his spots, either; he's already 28-55 from behind the arc on the year. Like Brad Redford, most of his damage takes place outside the arc; he's followed up his 10-16 from two-point range last year with 3-5 on this young season. Xavier's team defense against the three is stout (28.3% on the year), but they've been spotty against individual shooters. Checking Smith wherever he goes is an absolute must.
Running the show is another senior, 5'9" Lewis Jackson. His scoring is better than respectable (10.6 per game) and his rebounding (3.3 per game) is pretty good for a guy who is listed well south of the six-foot mark, but it is his control of possessions that stands out and probably sets the tone for the whole team. He is shooting a very good .467/.273/.743 (he's only 3-11 from three), but more importantly has dished out 35 assists to only 12 turnovers on the year. He's also averaging 1.4 steals per game; Jackson is a large reason that Purdue gets so many more chances to score than their opponents.
Other notable players include freshman guard Anthony Johnson, who is getting 8.8/3.0/1.4 on .439/.300/.500 shooting. He's an extremely talented player who figures to only get better going forward. Junior wing Kelsey Barlow gets 8.5 PPG while being second on the team with 4.6 boards per outing. He also gets almost 2 steals per game, which will be something to watch out for. Sophomore forward Sandi Marcus warrants mention because (A) he has a girl's name and (B) at 6'9", 257, he's far and away the bulkiest player on the Boilermaker's interior. The Croatian only averages 10 minutes per game, but he might see the court if Coach Painter decides someone needs to run into Kenny Frease.
Offensively, Purdue lines up like a team that lacks a consistent post scoring threat. Just shy of 40% of their field goal attempts come from behind the arc, which is the 53rd highest rate in the country. While Xavier gets 77.8% of their points from inside the arc or at the line, Purdue only gets 64.7% of their scoring from those situations. It's early to read too much into numbers, but consider this; Robbie Hummel is 6'8" and gets 30.8MPG, Jacob Lawson is 6'8" and gets 14.8MPG, Travis Carroll is 6'9" and gets 15.9MPG, and Sandi Marcus we've already noted. Nobody else who has played in at least half of Purdue's games stands over 6'5". That's 36% of the team's minutes going to guys taller than Dez Wells; Xavier gets 49.5% of their minutes from players that size.
Purdue's defense is one of the best in the nation, clocking in at 13th in defensive efficiency. Their three-point defense is almost exactly average, but they are only allowing opponents to shoot 42.3% from inside the arc. They're also rebounding more than 70% of their opponents' misses, which is good for 87th in the country and more impressive considering that they're a below-average rebounding team on the offensive end. Like Xavier, the Boilermakers are a tick above average in getting steals and forcing turnovers in general. Both teams are also well into the top-100 in shot blocking, though Xavier is actually a little superior to Purdue in that regard.
-Can Big Kenny stay in the game and be effective? Nobody on Purdue's squad approaches Kenny Frease in terms of displacement; he'll be the biggest guy on the floor by a long shot - when he's out there. Foul trouble and game situations have been twin thorns in the Pride of Massillon’s side this year. For Xavier to go where they want to this season, Frease has to be able to assert himself in games that don't necessarily call for 30-second possessions with battles on the low post. Putting together 12/8/2 and a couple of blocks without wasting possessions with turnovers or missed shots/FT would be a huge step in the right direction for Frease.
-How well can X defend the perimeter? Xavier has good number as a team against three-point shooting - as noted above - but they haven't really played a team with multiple dangerous shooters. Purdue's two leading scorers are extremely dangerous from outside, and their offensive style is set up - both by design and necessity - to exploit that strength. The Muskies will need someone with length to check Hummel (looking at you, Andre Walker and Travis Taylor) and a traditional guard (Tu, Cheek, or Dez, or some combination of the three) to track Smith. Lapses in team defensive effort are more likely to be punished in this game than any Xavier has played to this point.
-Can Xavier crack a tough half court defense? Despite the fact that they play with a pretty average tempo, the Muskies have had some of their best offensive spurts by getting the ball out quickly and grabbing easy buckets off of misses or turnovers. Purdue plays almost exactly at the same tempo as Xavier does, so this game figures to feature a lot of half court possessions. If Tu and Cheek aren't getting the calls on penetration (i.e., what they were doing against Vandy early), Xavier has the tools to compensate for it with a few strategic tweaks. If they can actually settle in and make this happen is still something of a question at this point, but it would be nice to see against one of the top defensive teams so far this season.
-Don't fall behind. This seems absurdly obvious, but Xavier can't afford to get into another situation like they were in at Vandy. Any time Xavier has needed a run this year, it has been sparked by the defense forcing turnovers. The Boilermakers are not the kind of team against whom you can count on getting easy buckets from turnovers. They're tops in the nation in avoiding TOs and second in avoiding steals. Xavier needs to come out with consistent defensive pressure from the word go rather than having to turn it on late to avoid the loss.
-Play the whole game. We're yet to see 40 minutes of Xavier's best basketball this year, and it's a testament to the talent and tenacity of this team that it remains undefeated. There are still big games looming in and out of conference play for the Muskies, but this game might be the one in which a wire-to-wire performance is the most necessary. Purdue was brought in to test Xavier, not be part of another streak of home victories. If the Muskies want to protect the Cintas Center, they're going to have to avoid lulls in their game.
-Work the size advantage. As noted above, X simply gets a lot more effective minutes from bigger guys than Purdue does. As noted slightly less far above, Kenny Frease is unmatched in size by anyone the Boilermakers have to offer. Even outside of Big Kenny, though, Xavier's size has the potential to cause fits for Purdue. Travis Taylor and Andre Walker were all over the glass, especially on the offensive end, against Vandy. A similar rebounding advantage will help Xavier earn back some of the scoring opportunities that Purdue harvests by taking such good care of the ball.
I (obviously) think pretty highly of this Purdue team. Hummel is a great player, but the whole squad does a lot of things very right to cover up for some of their shortcomings. This matchup would be terrifying on the road; at home, Xavier has a better chance to take care of business. If Xavier can keep the game in hand and let the crowd get into it, they may well come away from this one with a very impressive W. If the defensive effort lets down, Purdue is a hard to team to come back on.
For more coverage - including a preview from their perspective - swing by Purdue's SBN blog, Hammer and Rails.