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November 24, 2009
Two Favorites
Purdue and Tennessee

by John Gasaway

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Purdue and Tennessee put on a really good show last night in the championship game of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, a contest won by the Boilermakers by the score of 73-72. What was frustrating to me, though, was that this could very well have been a truly great game if the officials had merely understood that we are all here to see basketball being played and not to savor the sound of whistles being blown. In the first half in particular there were long stretches where it was quite literally impossible for a half-court possession to be completed without a foul being called.

In fact last night provided a handy refutation of the tired canard about the importance of “consistency” in officiating. The officials last night were consistent alright, consistently hyperactive in their whistling. As a result JaJuan Johnson played just 18 minutes for the Boilers before fouling out. It’s undeniably impressive that Matt Painter’s team was able to win anyway with so little in the way of help from Johnson (and with Robbie Hummel shooting 1-of-6 on his threes). But my beef here is purely as a spectator: I wanted to see a great player like Johnson go up against a great opponent like Tennessee. Alas it was not to be, in part because the Volunteers accurately gauged the preternatural eagerness of refs on this night and, quite rightly, made a point of dribbling right into Johnson and jumping into him at every opportunity.

Painter’s team managed to win anyway. Credit E’Twaun Moore, who had his most impressive game of the young season on offense (22 points on 8-of-16 shooting), and the Boilermaker D, which was just good enough in this 73-possession game.

In addition to getting just 18 minutes from Johnson, Painter of course received zero minutes from Lewis Jackson, who started 30 games as a freshman last year but is out after undergoing foot surgery last week. To be honest I’ve been utterly baffled by the fuss made in some quarters over Jackson’s absence, a fuss that has included hoops writers fretting on Twitter about where to rank Purdue in the polls now that one of their starters is out.

Jackson was a starter last year, sure, but he played fewer minutes than nominal reserve Keaton Grant and, not to put too fine a point on it, the young man turned the ball over an awful lot. Besides, after last night I feel like maybe I’ve seen the Purdue pass-first point guard future and its name is Kelsey Barlow. In only his fourth game the freshman rather startled the Vols by dishing two picture-perfect assists on fast breaks (one a lob for a dunk, the other a bounce pass for a layup). Recall that when Jackson went down the initial worry concerned Purdue’s depth, but youngsters like Barlow and Ryne Smith (who has started his year hitting 6-of-13 threes) looked plenty capable last night against an opponent of Tennessee’s caliber.

Still, while the latest group of baby Boilers might be feisty, this team is decidedly a three-headed monster on offense, just like last year.

Hummel and Johnson and Moore, oh my
%Shots: percentage of Purdue’s shots taken by player while he's on the floor
Through games of November 23

                %Shots
E’Twaun Moore    31.3
Robbie Hummel    26.7
JaJuan Johnson   25.4
Ryne Smith       18.3
Keaton Grant     17.2
Kelsey Barlow    11.0
Chris Kramer      9.2

Chris Kramer is, of course, a sublime catalyst of ceaseless disruption on defense. If you saw the sequence last night where he forced a turnover while sliding across the floor on his stomach, you pretty much saw his innermost hoops essence. Opponents groan with dread when they see Kramer.

And while it is indeed a little unusual for an offense to be this good when at any given time 40 percent of the players on the floor are so unlikely to attempt a shot, it's hard to argue with success. This year the Boilermakers will take care of the ball, run their curls off of all those screens, and get open looks for their Big Three. It is decidedly unglamorous and the opponent most certainly knows it’s coming. (Well, they do now because I just told them.) But it works.

Tennessee comes at this whole offense thing a little differently, but they too get results. Here’s a secret I can share with you if you promise not to tell anyone. You know the Volunteers’ arch rival, Kentucky, and how you can’t watch three minutes of a Wildcat game this season without an announcer going on and on about John Calipari’s oh-so-wacky dribble-drive offense? Well, Bruce Pearl runs some heavily dribble-drive-inflected stuff himself. If I didn’t know it before I knew it when I saw Wayne Chism (!) take the ball between the circles, break down his defender off the dribble sans ball screen, and create an open look for the notably floppy-haired Skylar McBee.

The Volunteers this year will do what they do: Score points and force turnovers, both at a fast pace. True, last year was something of a hiccup in the tempo department in Knoxville. (In 2009 the Vols’ pace was actually a hair slower than that of an average SEC team during conference play.) But Pearl says this year he’s going to step on the gas, and I for one believe him. If you saw the Wagnerian dunk that Tyler Smith threw down at the end of that fast break in the first half last night, you too are a believer in this team operating at the highest speed possible.

Actually Smith has been oddly bashful on offense thus far on the young season. (For one thing he is yet to attempt a three-point shot this year.) Granted, it’s much too early to draw conclusions about such things, but for better or worse the Tennessee offense in November has been very much the Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism Show. Hopson in particular has been impressive, hitting shots from both sides of the arc while carrying more of the load on offense than any other Volunteer. Clearly Pearl has heeded my admonition in this year’s book that Hopson should “take on a larger role in the Tennessee offense.” Glad to have you reading along, Coach!

Speaking of the book, I have Purdue winning the Big Ten and Tennessee tying with Kentucky for the top honors in the SEC. After last night I feel pretty good about both halves of that assertion. The Boilermakers look a little deeper than I thought they would, but they’re just as skilled, experienced, and tenacious as I expected. As for the Volunteers, they might not win any three-point-shooting contests this season but they will attack opponents in waves and win a lot of games. These are two very good teams and it was nice to see them brought together for 40 minutes, even if the refs should have been sedated beforehand. Thank you, Paradise Jam.

John has never agonized over Lewis Jackson's absence on Twitter: @johngasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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