If there really exists something in a way of a moral victory, then I suppose Thursday night’s game against Michigan would count. The team deserves some acknowledgement of how they played, at least for the first 20+ minutes, even though the final result was not what Purdue fans had hoped far.
Truth be told, the final score betrays a little the actual closeness of the game. It’s important to recognize just how good of a team Michigan is. Trey Burke is an unbelievable talent, and after forgoing the NBA draft in order to come back for his sophomore season, he has put together a resume worthy of National Player of the Year consideration. At this point he has to be the favorite for Big 10 Player of the Year; no small compliment, considering his competition for that award includes the likes of Cody Zeller and DeShaun Thomas, among others. Burke is backed by an unbelievable supporting cast, including three outstanding freshmen in Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, and Nik Stauskas.
Michigan is capable of beating anyone in the country, perhaps even capable of winning it all come March. But for significant portions of the game against Purdue they looked incredibly vulnerable. Purdue was hitting from distance, was playing great defense, and overall looked to have some hold over the game, as tenuous as that hold may have been. Michigan coach John Beilein certainly could not have been pleased going into halftime, and whatever he said to his squad seemed to work, and the second half saw Purdue regress to their season averages in an incredibly brutal fashion. That hot shooting from distance? Gone, as the Boilermakers were unable to hit a single three in the second half. The disciplined defense, the ability to match UM’s energy, the great offensive rebounding, all disappeared into thin air in the packed Crisler Center.
There was one key stretch when Purdue really lost the game. They were down by a mere five points when Stauskas, he of the 50% accuracy from behind the 3-point line, was left wide open for a three. On the ensuing possession Anthony Johnson would miss a 3-point attempt quite badly – in fact, the three Purdue possessions following the Stauskas 3-pointer would all end with missed 3-point shots, which I don’t have to tell you is not Purdue’s game – that Michigan would capitalize on to the tune of six straight points by freshman Mitch McGary.
Two players really stood out in a negative sense, those being the AJ’s: Hammons and Johnson. Hammons, for the second game in a row, was a complete non-factor. Freshmen have their ups and downs, even those as gifted as Hammons, though he lack of effort and energy throughout the game was particularly concerning. I would chalk his poor play (two points and two rebounds again Michigan) to the ebb and flow of youth, but it is worth watching him over the next few games to see how he responds.
Anthony Johnson has also been struggling lately. He did only have one turnover, but his production was just not where it needs to be. He finished with four points on 2-6 shooting (he was 0-2 from behind the 3-point line) and had only one rebound and most importantly, only one assist. He has really been struggling to run the offense as the point guard. The offense does not have the same flow to it as it does when Ronnie Johnson is running the show. AJ has been the latest focus of some Purdue fans’ ire, but I am unwilling to give up on talent. Yes, this is his third year in the program (he redshirted his freshman year) but he is clearly still learning. Keep in mind that Ryne Smith did not shoot over 30% from behind the 3-point line until he was a junior. There’s certainly more time, but Purdue is going to need more out of their sophomore guard.
But there is plenty to focus on from the positive end of things. Purdue hung tough with the presumed #1 team in the nation, and continued to fight until the game finally got away from them in the last few minutes. This is not a “burn the tape and never watch again” type of game. All losses are disappointing, but this one is more palatable than some of Purdue’s early season efforts. Unfortunately, the road does not ease up on Purdue, with a tough Iowa team up next, followed by top-10 Indiana. Those two games will tell Purdue fans everything they need to know about Purdue’s ceiling this season.