The Wolverines get a visit from Purdue tonight in Crisler at 7pm, and yet again have a legitimate shot at number one overall thanks to a choke job by Duke on the road.
This isn't your, um, older brother's Purdue team. Where the Boilermakers have spent the past few years as one of the Big Ten's strongest teams, this year Purdue isn't even in the top three programs in its own state.
The Boilermaker's resume is that of a middle of the road Big Ten team. Purdue hasn't really beaten anyone of note, lost to Eastern Michigan, and kept the Ohio State game around 8-10 points throughout. The overall record stands at 10-8 with a conference record of 3-2. Those three wins are against a rapidly unraveling Illinois team and the two resident conference punching bags, Penn State and Nebraska. The losses came against Michigan State and Ohio State. Purdue does pretty much what you expect it to do (unless the game is against EMU, then who the hell knows).
The first thing that jumps out about Purdue is how young the team is. Like, scary young. Kenpom has the Boilermakers as the 315th most experienced team in the nation. Of the six highest usage players on Purdue's team, four of them are freshmen, and two freshmen are in the starting lineup. This includes the seven footer in the middle, AJ Hammons. He is the big rebounder/shot blocker/moderately talented offensive player. The other two major threats are Terone Johnson -- a guard that does a little bit of everything for the Boilermakers with nearly five rebounds a game and over three assists -- and DJ Byrd, who doesn't use many possessions, but does so efficiently by holding the best offensive rating on the team at 108.1.
Other players of note are Ronnie Johnson, who leads the team in assists per game but matches that with a TO rate (22.4) that nearly exceeds his assist rate (23.4). Freshman Rapheal Davis is taking less shots that almost everyone that gets minutes, but making them at a better rate (both twos and threes) than anyone else as well. Purdue lost high-usage freshman Jay Simpson to a foot injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season.
What to watch for
Purdue has one thing going for it: shot defense. The Boilermakers are second in the conference in eFG%*, largely because Purdue holds teams to the lowest two point percentage in the conference. Purdue is also simultaneously terrible at defending opponent three point shots (11th in the conference), but pretty good at denying those looks (just 27 percent of opponent looks come from long range, five percentage points better than the national average). Purdue needs all the shot defense it can get because A) the Boilermakers are worse than Michigan at forcing turnovers and B) not all that great at stopping Big Ten teams from hitting the offensive boards.
Offensively, Purdue doesn't really do much that sticks out. The Boilermakers don't shoot the ball very well or get to the line very often (both categories rank in the 200s nationally). A majority of Purdue's looks come from inside the arc -- over 75 percent -- and shooting 62 percent from the charity stripe isn't much help either.
Michigan's keys to a win
1. Keep shooting the lights out - If Purdue wants to win this game it is going to need to continue to play solid shot defense, keep Michigan from getting many open looks, and try to use its size to alter shots inside and make things tough on Michigan's bigs (Purdue is an above average shot blocking team thanks to an above average level of height). If Michigan can get its offense moving, catch Purdue out of position on drives, and get open looks for Michigan's scorers, it shouldn't be much of a game.
2. Keep holding on to the ball - Michigan is one of the best in the country at not turning the ball over. Purdue is below average at forcing mistakes. Unless Michigan gets a case of the dropsies, this one should fall in Michigan's favor and help the Wolverines hold off any extended runs by Purdue.
3. Interior defense - Purdue is 18th in percentage of ooints off two point shots. The Boilermakers aren't going to burn you from deep or at the stripe. But with a seven footer starting and two six-nine guys coming off the bench, Purdue does have some size to do things inside. Michigan's guards and wings should have the advantage in size and athleticism, so as long as Morgan and McGary play smart and stay out of foul trouble, Michigan should be able to slow Purdue down.
I don't think Purdue is very good, but Big Ten games don't always follow logic. That this one comes in the comfort of Crisler is a relief, but stranger things have happened. All in all, the way Michigan's playing should make this one relatively boring. Michigan will most likely be able to build a modest halftime lead before Beilein's evil machinations open up a healthy double digit lead right out of the half. Trey Burke will do Trey Burke things all while you giggle like a schoolgirl at how stupid he makes Purdue look.
Kenpom says Michigan by 17. I think it'll be an even 20.
*(Conference rankings are based on conference games only, so keep in mind the small sample size and the lack of gimme games).