After wins against Illinois and Penn State, Michigan is 2-0 in the Big Ten, but the road is about to get rockier. On Thursday, the Wolverines travel to West Lafayette to take on Purdue, who's #20 in the AP poll but #7 on KenPom. And, to make matters worse, they may be without Caris LeVert, who's been out with a lower left leg injury and whose status remains uncertain. Accordingly, Michigan isn't expected to win, but this game could give U-M its first signature victory of the season.
Therefore, we wanted to gain insight as to the challenge that'll be presented to Michigan. To do that, I reached out to Travis Miller, who is the manager of Hammer and Rails -- SB Nation's Purdue site. I asked him some questions, and Travis responded by discussing Purdue's status as a national title contender, how Iowa rallied in the second half to beat the Boilermakers in West Lafayette, why Purdue has the nation's best defense, and whether the Wolverines can upend Purdue on Thursday. Read Travis' answers below!
Most expected Purdue would be a fringe-top-25 team this season and a step behind Michigan State and Maryland in the Big Ten title race. However, the Boilermakers have exceeded those expectations thus far thanks to many comfortable wins, including ones against Florida, Pitt, and Vanderbilt. As a result, KenPom has listed Purdue as a top-10 team for over a month. How have fans' expectations shifted after the non-conference season? Is this Purdue team a legitimate contender to win a national title?
The hot start definitely raised expectations a little bit, but since starting 11-0, Purdue has cooled considerably on offense. In both losses, Purdue has reverted to many of the same issues that have been problematic in almost every loss the last few years. Against Butler, Purdue scored two points in seven minutes in the second half. Against Iowa, they had a similar dry spell for 11 minutes. You can’t afford to have the offense completely go away for long stretches like that.
Purdue definitely has the size to contend, and when its shooters are hitting, it really opens things up. I feel like Purdue could beat anyone in the country. Like it does for so many teams, however, success in March is going to come down to avoiding that bad game at the worst time. Purdue’s second half against Iowa was atrocious, which stung because the first half was excellent. Even though Purdue has played better overall, it has shown that when things go south, it can happen in a hurry.
However, Purdue just had a second-half collapse at home against Iowa. The Boilermakers led by as many as 19 points and owned a 17-point halftime lead, but the Hawkeyes stormed back to win, 70-63. What happened to Purdue in the second half? What did the Hawkeyes do differently to cause the Boilermakers to unravel?
Iowa started pressing, and Purdue’s guards could not handle the half-court trap once getting across the timeline. This completely threw Purdue out of its offense and led to 10 turnovers and just eight made baskets. It was bizarre because Purdue pretty much fell apart in sections and the big lead was completely gone within 10 minutes. Iowa also hit some tough, challenging shots, especially Jarrod Uthoff, to jump start their own offense.
It was pretty much a tale of two halves. Purdue shot the lights out for a stretch in the first half to go on a 16-0 run. Iowa turned the tables with a 19-0 run. That more than made the game even, and Purdue had no answer for their defensive pressure. It needs to be an emphasis going forward because Purdue's point guards are still questionable.
Purdue is first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (86.9) because opponents can't make shots from inside (2nd in 2P%) or outside (10th in 3P%) the arc. Why has it been so difficult for offenses to put the ball in the basket against the Boilermakers? Are there any weaknesses that Michigan can exploit even if Caris LeVert doesn't play?
Well, it helps in having two really tall guys in A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas near the basket. Hammons especially can erase anything within five feet and is just a tremendous defender. He also let’s Purdue’s swarming perimeter defense get out and challenge shooters. Even then, Iowa caught fire in the second half and was over 60% from the field. To do that, they hit some very challenging shots.
On the other end of the court, Purdue has improved as a shooting team, but the matchups that scare Michigan fans are 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan vs. 6-foot-6 Zak Irvin and the skyscrapers, 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and seven-foot A.J. Hammons, vs. 6-foot-10 Mark Donnal. How good have Swanigan, Haas, and Hammons been on the block this season? Do the Wolverines have any chance of stopping them around the rim ?
Haas is struggling a bit and Swanigan was pretty awful with turnovers against Iowa, but Hammons has taken over the second halves of several games this year. He has incredibly quick footwork that allows him to beat almost anyone one-on-one. Haas has been starting games, but he needs to learn to go up stronger to the basket. Too often, he does a fadeaway or brings the ball down and is stripped. As for Swanigan, he is still developing. He can play outside and drive to the basket, but turnovers have been a major issue.
KenPom projects a nine-point win for Purdue over Michigan. What is the one thing that Michigan must do if it wants to upset the Boilermakers? And who wins this game?
If I were Michigan, I would try and ratchet up the defensive pressure and trap Purdue's guards. Purdue was pretty awful against it with Iowa, and Butler also caused a lot of turnovers with their defensive intensity. It is a rare feat that a team outworks Purdue, but when it happens, Purdue does not handle it well.
I think Purdue wins, 65-60.
Thank you to Travis for sharing his insight! Make sure to follow him on Twitter!