Journal & Courier Purdue insiders Mike Carmin and Nathan Baird break down the Boilermakers’ trip to Nashville to face Auburn.
Nathan Baird, jconline.com
Hidden within the Boilermakers’ 7-5 record is one of the nation’s toughest strength of schedule ratings. To capitalize, they need more wins, beginning Saturday against Belmont.
WEST LAFAYETTE — Evan Boudreaux’s Christmas gifts included six stitches near his right eye.
The Purdue forward suffered a friendly fire wound when fellow centers Trevion Williams and Emmanuel Dowuona fought for a rebound. Wrong place, wrong time.
Intensity over the break was apparently not a problem for a team acutely aware of the five losses next to its name.
“When you’re 7-5 and you’re searching for those big wins still, it’s got to be high,” Boudreaux said. “We haven’t really earned anything yet.”
That may not be entirely true. While the Boilermakers’ record lacks the value they prefer on the left side of the dash, it at least has substance.
Preseason look: Texas highlights a Purdue non-conference schedule short on filler
According to analyst Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, Purdue takes the country’s 10th-toughest schedule into Saturday’s non-conference finale against Belmont. With the likely exception of Appalachian State, all of the Boilermakers’ road and neutral-court games have come against teams expected to contend for conference titles or postseason berths.
Yet other than an extra road trip to Texas, much of the Purdue schedule resembles previous years. Exempt tournament such as the Charleston Classic provide at least one or two NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents when things go according to plan. Same for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Crossroads Classic.
Where the schedule deviates most from previous seasons is a lack of gimmes, as much as such a thing exists. That follows through on Matt Painter’s stated goal when the Big Ten Conference announced the move to a 20-game schedule.
Using those same KenPom rankings, Purdue will re-enter Big Ten play having faced only two opponents ranked No. 200 or lower: Appalachian State and Robert Morris. Only Penn State (one) and Illinois (two) similarly restricted their potential for walk-over opponents.
The other 11 league teams combined for 58 such opponents. Iowa leads with seven, including four teams ranked 315 or lower. Michigan and Indiana are among the four teams with six such matchups.
Future considerations: As coaches remain concerned with schedule strength, Big Ten may surpass 20 league games
“Now that I’ve gone through it, I’m like, ‘Hey man, this has been tough,’ ” senior guard Ryan Cline said.
“For this young team, it’s really good, especially going into Big Ten play, to say we were in all these games and just weren’t able to finish it out. To be able to go into Big Ten with a head of steam.”
Belmont, 75th nationally on Ken Pom and only two spots behind Purdue at No. 40 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, fits Painter’s preference. Beating a team ranked in the 300s at home affects a team’s NCAA Tournament chances as much as a highly ranked road loss — which is to say it has no effect at all.
Painter believes the NCAA Tournament selection committee — should Purdue’s fate rest in their hands — will reward a tougher schedule based on the parameters they have already laid out.
“Even though we’ve had a tough schedule, we’re still in a position where if we keep getting better and we keep working we can reach that goal of getting to the NCAA Tournament and being a team that competes for a Big Ten title,” Painter said.
“… You never know what can happen. You’ve got to keep plugging and getting guys to understand how important each possession is.”
Of the nine teams currently ranked ahead of Purdue in strength of schedule, eight are mid or low-majors with losing records who played predominately on the road in non-conference. Their SOS scores will presumably worsen during conference play.
Only Kansas — whose 10-1 record includes neutral victories over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee — and 4-8 Illinois — with seven road or neutral games against KenPom top 75 teams — stand above the Boilermakers among Power 5 teams.
That explains Purdue’s favorable overall KenPom (19) and NET (38) rankings despite a mediocre 7-5 record.
Yet the Boilermakers’ non-conference slate also seemed especially tough because of what comes next. Seven Big Ten teams currently sit above Purdue in the NET rankings. More than any season in recent memory, the league schedule provides no semblance of relief.
Of the Boilermakers’ nine Big Ten road opponents to come, only Penn State (78) currently resides outside the NET top 60.
Algorithms will only help partially help Purdue in its bid for a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. At some point the math becomes simple. The Boilermakers must starting adding up wins — especially the valuable road wins which have thus far eluded them.
“It’s frustrating for us to know we had some of those wins kind of slip away from us,” Boudreaux said. “Obviously you can’t just say you had a really good strength of schedule and get in. You’ve got to get the wins and you’ve got to prove to the country and the committees you can beat people here, you can beat people away from your home building and beat people who are really good.”
After back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Texas, it remained unclear whether the tough schedule had helped make Purdue better. A home win over Maryland remains an outlier as far as defensive performances against upper-echelon opponents. Offensive efficiency remains inconsistent game to game.
On the other hand — and a high-scoring, opportunistic Belmont team should reinforce this point — the Boilermakers will not end December with an undeserved sense of self. Warts which otherwise may have remained hidden against a softer schedule are fully exposed.
“I don’t think we’re walking in there with any falsehood towards who we are,” Painter said. “We understand our weaknesses, like anybody else has weaknesses, but have your weaknesses really been exposed? That’s what you want to be able to do. You want to have those weaknesses exposed.
“You don’t want them to cost you losses, but if that loss can make you better and help you win games down the road, you’ll take it.”
Painter calls the coming Big Ten schedule “a monster.” However, Wednesday’s practice at Mackey Arena obviously focused on the challenge of beating the NCAA Tournament-caliber team up next on the schedule: Belmont.
The Bruins feature a Hall of Fame-nominee coach in Rick Byrd, an NBA prospect wing in Dylan Windler and a confident squad which already went to UCLA and knocked off John Wooden’s other team this season.
The combination of the 20-game Big Ten schedule and Painter’s non-conference preferences made it unlikely a still-jelling Purdue team could repeat last season’s No. 2 seed. A win over Belmont, however, could provide a push into a league gauntlet both challenging and potentially lucrative.
“We’re going to play a lot of tournament teams here — a handful of them twice,” Painter said of the Big Ten schedule. “It’s what you want. You want to be able to help yourself and help your league and put yourself in that position where our league is getting eight, nine, 10 teams. I know that sounds crazy, but in a perfect storm, things like that can happen.
“We just want to be a part of it.”
Contact Journal & Courier Purdue men’s basketball insider Nathan Baird at email@example.com or 765-420-5234. Follow him on Twitter: @nbairdjc