Poor Purdue. I mean the university, not just the basketball team. It seems like every time West Lafayette hosts a big nationally televised game against a top opponent, the Boilermakers underperform. Tuesday night, watching the glum faces dressed in black in Mackey Arena during Duke's 76-60 dismantling of the home team, I was reminded of a similarly funereal night in Tippecanoe County 14 months ago.
On October 6, 2007, the 5-0 Purdue football team, averaging 45 points a game, hosted fourth-ranked Ohio State in a Saturday night game televised nationally by ABC. Everything was in place for a big night. Ross-Ade Stadium was packed with black-clad fans as eager and vocal as fans are when helpfully furnished with an 8 p.m. kickoff. Brent ("You are looking live at Ross-Ade Stadium!") and Kirk were on hand. The joint was rocking.
Then the game started. The Buckeyes suffocated Purdue and threw them aside like a bothersome rodent, winning 23-7. Even the final score was deceiving--the Boilers scored their lone TD with ten seconds remaining in the game.
That brings me to last night and Duke vs. Purdue. Dickie V. was in Mackey Arena for the first time since, well, who knows when. A venue that as recently as three years ago saw many seats go unfilled was the site of a 48-hour tent city populated by students hungry for the best tickets. The matchup had been touted all night long during a series of hard-fought contests in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (Ohio State 73, Miami 68; Boston College 57, Iowa 55; Clemson 76, Illinois 74). Everything was in place for still another close game, only this time between two elite teams.
Then the game started. For Purdue fans, there were troubling signs right from the start. The Boilers, returning all five starters from a team that went 15-3 in the Big Ten last year, came out looking surprisingly young and uncomfortable in the spotlight. Their first basket, four-plus minutes into the game, came on, of all things, a Chris Kramer drive and jump-stop--not exactly their bread and butter. In fact their bread and butter was being denied to them, and would be all evening long.
Anyone who saw Rhode Island's Jimmy Baron hit eight threes against Duke a couple weeks ago will be forgiven for not believing what I'm about to say, but over the past year the Blue Devils have in fact made a habit of denying threes to their opponents. Not just makes, mind you, but even attempts. Duke has excelled at forcing the other team to attempt long twos, the least rewarding shots on the floor.
Last night furnished a virtual clinic in Duke's three-prevention. The most illuminating single line in the box score is probably this:
33 Moore, E'Twaun g 5-12 0-2
That's just two attempted threes in 32 minutes from one of Purdue's main perimeter threats. For his part, Robbie Hummel was guarded for much of the evening by the uncannily Hummel-like Kyle Singler. Hummel tried but three threes and made one. Only Keaton Grant came close to achieving a normal number of attempted threes and he went 0-for-5.
Yes, the Boilers were a cold-shooting bunch, hitting just two of their 13 threes. Even more telling, though, was the fact that Purdue attempted just 22 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, their lowest proportion of the season. In fact, in 18 Big Ten games last year there was not one instance where this group of players devoted such a small share of their attempts to threes. Last night Duke pushed the Purdue offense completely out of its comfort zone, its personality and its abilities.
The total lack of threes from the home team was decisive in this game, but there were some other teachable moments. I found it interesting, for instance, that Nemanja Calasan was crowned as the sudden favorite of the announcing crew--in a game in which Purdue was being absolutely eviscerated on the boards by a not particularly beastly Duke team. The Blue Devils got to 80 percent of the Boilers' misses and 43 percent of their own. That's a pretty fair imitation of Michigan State 2000.
True, Calasan made half (i.e., one) of his team's threes all by himself last night, but if you still have this game on your DVR, watch his all-too-characteristic attempt at a defensive board (he actually has position) with 14 minutes left in the first half. This play was described in real time as a triumph by Brian Zoubek, but I seriously doubt Matt Painter will see it that way when he looks at the tape.
Speaking of Painter, I was surprised he had Kramer and freshman Lewis Jackson on the floor at the same time for so many minutes. That particular personnel group made Duke's job much easier on D because it meant the Boilers had two players on the floor who really didn't want to shoot. In effect, the Blue Devils had to cover just 60 percent of Purdue's players during those minutes.
As for Duke, they may have had the right strategy but as it happens they also played an excellent game, so much so that having two starters in foul trouble (Zoubek and Nolan Smith) was not really much of a problem for Mike Krzyzewski. Still, Blue Devil fans will be forgiven if they don't get too hyped about one win. After all, last year at this time Duke dismantled a Wisconsin team that went on to go 16-2 in the Big Ten. Their ability to dominate a top-tier Big Ten team in December, however, didn't prove especially helpful to the Blue Devils last March.
Recall that Duke started ACC play 10-0 last year but went just 3-3 over their last six conference games. An accepted explanation seems to be coalescing here around Kyle Singler's late-season fatigue. Hey, if Singler says he was fatigued late in the season, I take him at his word. Just keep in mind, though, that the Blue Devils' drop-off was emphatically bi-directional: starting in mid-February they got worse on not just on offense but also on defense, and in eerily equal measures. In other words, whatever caused last year's decline was bigger than just Kyle Singler. Hedging against a repeat performance will require more than better conditioning for just one player.
Then there's the larger buzzkill point. Duke has shown beyond question that they're outstanding at denying opponents' threes. You may have heard, though, that there's a certain team in the Blue Devils' own conference that's pretty good at scoring points without the benefit of threes. Coach K's group is clearly one of the top teams in the country this year. What is less clear, however, is whether any of this year's top teams will be able to compete with what we now believe to be the top team.
Purdue, of course, would be happy at this point merely to be re-included in such a discussion of top teams. Indeed, for the Boilers the really galling thing about this loss is simply that there will be no opportunity to wash this taste out anytime soon. Next to March, of course, early December is just about the worst time psychologically to drop a big game. You lose to Duke and then somehow you have to get up for Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Ouch.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.