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Preview: Michigan at Purdue

Michigan travels to West Lafayette tonight to take on the nation's stingiest defense in what is the beginning of a brutal three-game stretch.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Basics

Who: #20/18 Purdue Boilermakers (13-2, 1-1 B1G)

When: Thursday, January 7th, at 7:00 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Where: Mackey Arena -- West Lafayette, Ind.

SpreadVegas: +7.5KenPom: L, 62-71 (19% WP)

The Stage

For the past month, Michigan has feasted on teams outside the KenPom top 100, beating all six by an average of 31.7 points. But, for the next 10 days, Michigan will need to fight for scraps. Tonight marks the beginning of a three-game stretch against Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa, all of which are in the KenPom top 15 and the thick of the Big Ten title race. The Wolverines faced three opponents of this caliber during their non-conference slate (#9 Xavier, #14 SMU, and #32 UConn), and it didn't go well once as they lost all three games by at least 14 points. Not only is this a chance for Michigan to show it can compete with top-25 teams, it's a chance to announce to the rest of the Big Ten that U-M is a legitimate Big Ten title contender or at least add a marquee win to its resume.

However, Michigan may not enter this stretch at full strength. Caris LeVert missed last weekend's game against Penn State with a lower left leg injury, and few details about it have been revealed to the public. What John Beilein did say, though, was that there was as much of a chance of this being a long-term issue as a one-day issue. Thus, LeVert likely will be a game-time decision, but those words from Beilein are not comforting in the slightest. And, if Michigan doesn't have its best player for such an important stretch, the Wolverines will be the underdog in each of their next three contests. No question.

The Opponent

Purdue possesses a 13-2 record overall and 1-1 record in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers opened their season with 11 straight victories, winning all of them by double digits. They were manhandling their opponents, even quality ones like #31 Florida and #28 Pitt, which propelled them all the way up to #3 on KenPom. But Purdue hasn't been invincible in recent weeks. They fell just short of a second-half comeback against #36 Butler in the Crossroads Classic and collapsed in the second half against #13 Iowa on Saturday, blowing a 19-point lead and losing by seven points. However, that doesn't mean KenPom dislikes them now. Purdue is #6 on KenPom as the highest-ranked team in the Big Ten.

What makes Purdue special is its defense, which has the best adjusted efficiency in the nation (86.8). Their size, length, and discipline make it nearly impossible for offenses to find and hit open shots (1st in eFG%). Attacking the rim rarely works because PU always has a seven-footer protecting the rim (37th in blk%), and that luxury allows Purdue's skilled perimeter defenders to hug the three-point line more than most defenses, which is why only 30.1 percent of opponents' field-goal tries against Purdue are threes (33rd) and opponents make only 28.3 percent of their threes (11th). So that leaves offenses with one option: drive past the perimeter defenders and try to shoot mid-range jumpers over the outstretched hands of Purdue's centers. But most teams don't have the shooters to make that strategy work, which is why Purdue has the nation's best two-point defense (37.6 2P%). And offenses shouldn't hope that they'll be fouled on their shot or able to grab their miss. Purdue is 16th in free-throw rate and 22nd in defensive rebounding rate. The only thing that Purdue's defense doesn't do is force turnovers (320th in TO%).

Purdue's offense came out of the gates on fire, which is why PU was so dominant to start the season, but the unit has taken a step back in recent weeks. After averaging at least one point per possession in nine of its first 11 games, Purdue hasn't hit that mark in any of its last four contests. They tend to shoot a good chunk of threes (59th in 3PA%), but, in these last four games, they have made only 22-of-79 treys (27.8 pct.), bringing their three-point shooting for the season down to 35.2 percent (134th). The Boilermakers also have some trouble with turnovers (178th in TO%), and that was showcased in their last game against Iowa, in which they turned it over 10 times in the second half after the Hawkeyes went with a trapping press. Purdue is at its best when it can limit these turnovers, get the ball inside (41st in 2P%), and pound the offensive glass (43rd in OR%). But, even then, PU doesn't make many trips to the line (160th in FTR), where it makes 74.2 percent (39th).

The Personnel

Purdue's rotation consists of 10 players, and all of them receive considerable playing time because not one averages more than 27.3 MPG. That player is starting power forward and 6-foot-9 freshman Caleb Swanigan, who was a five-star prospect, McDonald's All-American, and Mr. Basketball in Indiana. Swanigan averages 10.2 PPG, but he's had a rough start to the Big Ten season, scoring six points total on 3-of-15 shooting (20.0 pct.) in two conference games. He's at his best when he gets to the rim for dunks and layups, of which he makes 85.7 percent, but, if defenses push him out to shoot two-point (31.1 pct.) and three-point (31.6 pct.) jumpers, his effectiveness wanes severely. Plus, what's held Swanigan back on offense is turnovers (27.3 pct.). He averages 3.1 TPG and has had at least three in eight of 15 games. Nonetheless, his best trait is his rebounding. His 8.9 RPG is the best in the Big Ten, and he's a force on both backboards (8.3 OR%, 24.2 DR%).

Joining Swanigan in the frontcourt will be one of two seven-foot skyscrapers. The starter is 7-foot-2 sophomore Isaac Haas, who's posted 11.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 1.4 BPG. Those averages are remarkable given that Haas plays only 16.6 MPG. If Purdue doubled his time on the court, he would be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate because he can finish around the rim (57.8 2P%), draw fouls (70.6 FTR) and hit free throws (73.6 pct.), rebound on both ends (12.8 OR%, 19.8 DR%), and swat shots (7.8 blk%). But Purdue doesn't because it has seven-foot senior A.J. Hammons to back him up and earn the majority of the minutes at center (22.1 MPG). Hammons, who's tallied a team-best 13.9 PPG, is a better scorer on the block (62.1 2P%), though he doesn't get hacked as much (31.1 FTR), and has connected on all three triples he's fired this season. Yet his impact is most felt as a rebounder (8.0 RPG) and rim protector (2.3 BPG). He has the second-best total rebounding percentage (12.3 OR%, 24.4 DR%) and fifth-best block rate (11.3 pct.) in the Big Ten. Teams would kill to have a center like Haas or Hammons. Purdue has both.

The starting small forward is 6-foot-8 sophomore Vince Edwards, whom Michigan fans might remember as a former John Beilein target. Edwards averages 8.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and 3.1 APG in 24.3 MPG. As a scorer, he thrives when he attacks the rim off the dribble, where he's made 75 percent of his shots and only 26.7 percent have been assisted. He's a capable jump-shooter from inside (40.0 pct.) and outside (35.6 pct.) the arc as well. Edwards also is one of Purdue's best passers and leads the team in assist rate (23.1 pct.), but he isn't spotless with the ball in his hands (17.3 TO%). And he is a solid defensive rebounder (14.0 pct.), which is why he'll slide down to the 4 when Swanigan needs to sit.

When Edwards moonlights as a power forward or needs a breather, 6-foot-7 junior Kendall Stephens will enter off the bench at small forward. Stephens scores 8.1 PPG in 16.8 MPG because he has no fear of shooting, holding the third-highest shot rate (31.0 pct.) in the conference. Almost all of these shots will come from downtown because he is a three-point specialist (86.0 3PA%). However, though Stephens has an excellent stroke, his threes haven't gone down as often as in past seasons. As a freshman and sophomore, he drilled 37.7 percent of his triples. This season, he's drained only 32.7 percent of them.

The starting shooting guard is 6-foot-6 senior guard Raphael Davis, who was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season and continues to lock down the perimeter for Purdue. He's not a defender that amasses rebounds, blocks, and steals. Instead, he achieves the ultimate goal on defense: prevents scorers from making shooting and pouring in points. On offense, Davis, who's averaged 9.8 PPG, flips between being a slasher and three-point shooter. He's good at both as he's converted 60.6 percent of his shots at the rim and 42.4 percent of his threes. The problem for him is when he tries to do too much (20.8 TO%) and gets stuck in no man's land (9.1 FG% on two-point jumpers). Backing Davis up are 6-foot-4 sophomore Dakota Mathias and 6-foot-5 freshman Ryan Cline. Both are three-point specialists, making 35.2 and 38.0 percent of their treys, respectively. They also post great assist-to-turnover ratios (3.6 and 3.8, respectively).

The point guard duties are split between 5-foot-10 sophomore P.J. Thompson and 6-foot-3 graduate transfer Johnny Hill. Thompson took the starting job from Hill after the first five games because he's much more careful with the basketball (14.3 TO% to 26.9 TO%). One reason why Thompson doesn't have as many turnovers as Hill is because Thompson prefers to hang around the perimeter and shoot jumpers (63.0 3PA%, 34.5 3P%), while Hill loves to put his head down to drive to the tin (65.9 2P%). However, both have identical assists rates (22.0 pct.), get to the free-throw line at about the same frequency (~79.0 FTR), and shoot similar percentages at the free-throw line (~78.5 pct.).

The Keys

Heal Caris LeVert's Left Leg: Yes, Michigan just had an offensive explosion without him last weekend, but that was against a middling Big Ten defense at home. Tonight, Michigan opposes the nation's best defense on the road. That would be difficult enough with its senior star that has one of the best offensive ratings among high-usage players. Achieving success without him would be nearly impossible. Not only is he an excellent shooter and distributor, he's able to create plays out of nothing as the shot clocks winds down. Given how stout Purdue is on the perimeter and inside defensively, the odds are high that U-M will have many late-clock possessions. Having LeVert for those is crucial.

Make Mid-Range Jumpers: When Michigan has to attack Purdue's half-court defense, shots at the rim and and threes will be hard to come by. Two-point jumpers account for 43.5 percent of opponents' field-goal attempts against Purdue, which is the fourth-highest in the country, and Michigan likely will need to settle for lots of mid-range jumpers. Caris LeVert (if he plays), Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, Aubrey Dawkins, and even Duncan Robinson will need to knock these down, most of which likely will be contested.

Dust Off the 1-3-1 Zone: To avoid facing Purdue's half-court defense, Michigan needs to pressure the Boilermakers into turnovers. This is what Iowa did in the second half to spark its 19-point comeback win against Purdue last weekend. The Boilermakers do lots of things well, but taking care of the basketball isn't one of them (178th in TO%). The 1-3-1 zone could have the same effect that Iowa's trapping press did and rattle Purdue's point guards. However, the issue is that the 1-3-1 has been more detrimental than beneficial to Michigan because offenses -- SMU's comes to mind -- have shredded it so far this season.

Also, the 1-3-1 zone (or even a 2-3) may induce Purdue to jack threes and not go inside. Though Purdue has three-point shooters, that would be a risk Michigan's willing to take.

Patrol the Paint: Michigan wants Purdue to shoot threes, but, according to UM Hoops' Dylan Burkhardt, no team in the nation runs more offense out of the post than Purdue. That's a huge problem for a Michigan team that runs a four-guard lineup and just saw 6-foot-6 Zak Irvin have trouble defend Penn State's 6-foot-6 Brandon Taylor on the block. Against Purdue, Irvin will have to defend 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan, while 6-foot-9 Mark Donnal will have to battle two seven-foot towers in Isaac Haas and A.J. Hammons. Not only do all three of Purdue's big men finish well around the rim, they're nationally ranked in offensive rebounding percentage. Therefore, Michigan needs to find a way to push these guys out of the paint, box them out, and keep them off the glass. Otherwise, this will look similar to Michigan's losses against Xavier, UConn, and SMU.

The Prediction

It will be ugly, particularly if Caris LeVert can't go. Purdue is the worst Big Ten matchup for Michigan. The Boilermakers own the best defense, protecting the rim and locking down the perimeter, and they bring waves of size and length that U-M can't handle on defense, especially down low. The only way that Michigan can pull off this upset is to unleash the 1-3-1 zone and hope it befuddles Purdue's offense. Not only would this limit the damage Purdue can inflict on Michigan on the block offensively, steals and live-ball turnovers will allow Michigan to score points without facing a set defense. But, though John Beilein likely has had U-M practice it all week, the 1-3-1 hasn't been that effective this year. Add in that this game will be in West Lafayette, and I don't think it'll be close.

Purdue 73, Michigan 59