Purdue 65, St. Peter's 43
(.97 points per possession to .64 on 67 possessions per team)
By the time Purdue tipped off against lightly-regarded St. Peter's, I held little hope for a compelling matchup. Part of it was a gut punch the organizers of the coverage of the regional gave to the media. Here's what happened: The complimentary buffet arranged for those covering the game was slated to be available between sessions, or at least that's what the pre-tournament literature said, as well as the placards hanging all over backstage. Unfortunately, the good folks at the United Center (and I don't mean that sarcastically--they are good folks) thought the feeding session was set for 3-6 p.m. That coincided almost exactly with the Florida State-Texas A&M game and its post-game interviews. By the time me and most of the rest of the media finished our stories and strolled over to the cafeteria, the food was gone. Nobody feels sorry for a hungry media, but let me tell you: One meal would be nice when you spend 14 hours at a basketball tournament.
That brings us to the Purdue-St. Peter's matchup of which, as I mentioned, I figured very little hope existed for any kind of drama. I figured correctly, so let's look at a little history.
St. Peter's is out of Jersey City, a fact I learned yesterday after asking myself, "Where the hell is St. Peter's?" I'd heard of the school of course, or at least I think I had. But there are quite a few schools that qualify as Division I basketball programs that I have to look up its home city and mascot. The St. Peter's Peacocks, from Jersey City, New Jersey, is definitely one of those schools. (This ignorance is regional, by the way. If you're out east, you probably think I'm insane. But have you heard of Baker?) The 'Cocks won their way into the Big Dance by knocking off Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final. Iona--there's a school I've heard of, but probably just because it's produced a handful NBA players, like Jeff Ruland, Richie Guerin and Steve Burtt. St. Peter's? Well, the Peacocks have had four guys reach the NBA, but none since the immortal Rich Ranaldi scored nine points for the Bullets before jumping to the NBA.
St. Peter's is a program risen from the ashes. (By the way, I'm writing up this history while the Boilermakers hammer on the Peacocks out on the court. Kind of tells you how this game is going.) Head coach John Dunne's team has found its way to the NCAAs at the end of a long climb, going from five to six to 11 to 16 to 20 wins over the last half-decade. With four senior starters, the tournament appearance is a nice reward for a job well done.
But what's this? Purdue hasn't scored in a while and it's suddenly just 15-8. Somebody told me that the Peacocks are sort of like Florida State, but with an even worse offense. And Pomeroy has then 19th in defensive efficiency, while the offense clocks in at 275th. Only Hampton ranks lower among NCAA Tournament entrants. Is their defense good enough to beat Purdue?
Uh, no. Not by a long shot. As I type this, St. Peter's is averaging .38 points per possession. Let me type that in words and in caps: POINT THREE EIGHT. Purdue, meanwhile, started scoring again and it's 21-8. St. Peter's might not score 21 points in this game. Like Hunter Thompson's wave, you can see where the rally broke (15-8) and rolled back.
So that allows me to return to the main storyline I'm looking at this weekend regarding Purdue: Can they find a dependable third option to go with the dynamite tandem of JuJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore? It's a role that was supposed to be filled by Robbie Hummel, of course, but his preseason injury probably cost Matt Painter's team a legitimate shot at a Final Four. Probably, but don't tell that to these Boilermakers, who have been fending off salvos all season long. They probably would never open a game write-up by whining about a closed buffet. (Note to self: See if any of Florida State's post-game spread is left.)
The Boilermakers are also missing reserve guard Kelsey Barlow, whom I wrote about this morning. That led to an early appearance by freshman Travis Carroll, who plays about as often as I get to eat. Anyway ... Carroll does play regularly, just not for long stretches. He's a long, face-up type with a pretty nice stroke, though he hasn't attempted a three-pointer this season. He's nice piece, but isn't going to be a primary scorer. Not yet, probably never.
At the half, Purdue was up 33-17. The Boilers averaged a point per possession exactly and held SPU to .53 and an eFG% of .296. The Peacocks' leading scorer, Willie Jenkins, had four points. Not one other player could manage so much as two baskets. In other words, after the break, I could resume my pondering of Purdue's role players. (And Purdue scored the first seven points of the second half, making it 40-17, and causing me to ponder eating my own arm.)
What about Lewis Jackson?
Purdue's waterbug of a point guard is a leader both on the floor and on the press podium, as he proved on Thursday. You can tell just by looking at his numbers that he's a distributor first and foremost. Even with that, he doesn't post an astronomical assist rate because the Boilers play so much two-man basketball with Moore and Johnson. Plus, Jackson can't shoot--he hit just nine of his 28 three-point attempts this year, shooting them seldom and poorly. He gets into the lane and creates, often drawing fouls that get him some free shots. He scored nearly a quarter of his points this season from the foul line. Because he does all that and defends the other team's quickest player, he's a solid role player. But he's not going to emerge as Purdue's third primary scorer.
What about D.J. Byrd?
Well, Byrd gets off about 15 percent of the shots that go up when he's on the floor. Of those, more than three-fourths are three-pointers. The majority of those are of the "I'm standing in the corner and waiting for a shot" variety. He's a functionary player, and a good one, but the most Painter can hope for is that he improves his iffy three-point success rate. He's not going to become a third bedrock scorer.
What about Ryne Smith?
See Byrd, but even more extreme. Going into Friday's game, he had 115 shots from behind the arc, and 14 inside of it.
What about Terone Johnson?
Now, here we might have something. Johnson, a 6'2" freshman, is likely to be the primary beneficiary of Barlow's absence.
"I think Terone Johnson is probably the guy it affects the most considering he can play both spots," said Painter, on Thursday. "He can play the one and the two."
With a 93.1 Offensive Rating, Johnson would not appear to be a likely option and, indeed, he's probably not. Johnson is both inefficient (43.2 True Shooting Percentage) and unprolific (18 percent of shots). However, he seemed to take to his expanded role against St. Peters, with eight points on four shots and four assists at the midway point of the second half. He is very quick and looked to me to have the ability to create space and get shots off with a quick, nice-looking release. Would he be the first freshman to emerge as a key player during the NCAA Tournament? I don't think so, and I'm sure a tournament historian could probably suggest one.
The answer to all of this is that it's not going to be any one of those guys. If the Boilermakers advance deep into the tourney, it's going to be on the shoulders of Moore and Johnson, with everyone else sharing the ball and playing tight defense. If, as was posited in the preseason College Basketball Prospectus, Purdue needs another threat to go far in the tournament, that Third Man is going be a different player every game. Is that a winning formula in a tough regional that includes high-power offenses like Notre Dame, Georgetown and Kansas? That's what Matt Painter is banking on.
To be fair to St. Peter's, they did put up a fight against Purdue. While they are an atrocious offensive team, especially in the backcourt, they do have some length (not bulk) and a good amount of team athleticism. It's easy to see why they do so well defensively in the MAAC. They put on a three-quarter court press for much of the second half and it really slowed Purdue down. The talent disparity was just too great. That won't be an advantage when Purdue takes the floor on Sunday, against the winner of the Georgetown-Virginia Commonwealth game.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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