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Scouting the Contenders 2023: Purdue Boilermakers

Matt Painter, Purdue

As March Madness slowly inches closer and closer, "Scouting the Contenders" takes a look at some of the nation's best teams in a chaotic race, scouts their strengths and weaknesses, and takes a best guess on just how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament. We begin with the nation's current No. 1 team, the one-loss Purdue Boilermakers.

Track Record

  • 21-1 overall record, 10-1 Big Ten
  • Wins over Gonzaga (84-66), Duke (75-56), Marquette (75-70), @ Michigan State (64-63)
  • Lone loss to Rutgers (65-64)
  • No. 5 in KenPom rankings
Scouting Report
During a season where few teams have been able to stay at the top of the rankings for long, Purdue has been a constant. Matt Painter's Boilermakers are off to one of their best starts in school history, with a 21-1 overall record that includes just a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Rutgers. With several weeks perched at the No. 1 overall ranking, Purdue seems like the prohibitive National Title favorite as we transition into the final months of the season. But, can they rid themselves of their recent March demons and finish the job this time around?
Balance, balance, balance... Painter has established himself as one of the best in the game in roster construction, quite an impressive quality during this chaotic era of college basketball. The Boilermakers check just about every box you could want: they have a star big man (Zach Edey), a deep backcourt that can shoot it, and capable wings that provide plenty of versatility. They feature an efficient offense, one that doesn't often blow the doors off opponents, but rarely goes through the long cold stretches that often plague other teams at this level. Defensively, it's a prototypical Painter team, with a smoothering on-ball perimeter defense and elite rim protector underneath. It's rare to see a team with this much balance on both ends of the court, and an obvious reason why they're so incredibly consistent. The Boilermakers show up in every contest, whether it's a big-time bout with a Top 10 foe, or a weekday road game against a team at the bottom of the standings. That's a difficult thing in this sport, and part of the reason why they've outpaced just about every team they've seen in 2022-2023.
The enigma that is Zach Edey... A Big Ten team with an elite big is not uncommon, even in the modern world of guard-play and pace-and-space. That's particularly true in West Lafayette, a program that seems to churn out productive giants at an unrelenting pace. However, Zach Edey truly is a special talent, the likely National Player of the Year. The numbers don't lie: he's averaging 21.4 PPG, 13.0 RPG, and 2.3 BPG, while shooting over 60% from the field. But, it goes even beyond the numbers, the attention he brings in the post completely opens up this offense and forces opposing defenses to completely shift their strategy, night-in and night-out. He moves incredibly well for his size at 7'4" and may be the best rim protector we've seen in a long time, probably since Anthony Davis in the early 2010s. He blocks shots and disrupts everything at the rim, but does so without fouling. Despite playing over 30 minutes per game and averaging over two blocks per game, he averages just 1.6 fouls per contest. It's hard to quantify just how insane that is. In fact, I can't remember that type of defensive dominance in my lifetime. 
They do the little things... Painter-coached teams always have the fundamentals down, and that is definitely the case with this current edition. They set hard screens, execute their cuts and get open, and play excellent team basketball. One thing in particular I appreciate? How well they shoot the ball at the free-throw line. Purdue ranks 19th nationally in free throw percentage at 76.% and there's not an obvious player to foul late in games. In this sport, where so many games are won at the margins, that's a major strength that will be especially vital down the stretch. As a fan of the worst free-throw shooting team in the country (the mighty Gophers at 59.2%) it's one thing that's always stood out to me about Painter's teams.
The freshman-led backcourt... Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith both entered this season as prized in-state recruits who were expected to contribute, but I'm not sure even the most optimistic Purdue fans expected them to be this good, this early. Loyer has taken on more of the scoring load, second behind Edey in points per game, but Smith is the real engine behind this Boilermaker offense. He's an excellent facilitator, consistent defender, and he shoots the ball well from everywhere on the court. The pair has been a great story, but it's fair to wonder whether they can hold up in the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. There's a completely different atmosphere once you get to the sport's biggest stage, even for a group that has been playing in the rugged Big Ten. How do these freshmen handle the spotlight? It is important to note, despite the fact this pair doesn't bring much experience to the table, Purdue isn't devoid of veteran leadership in the backcourt. Guys like Ethan Morton and Brandon Newman have played in plenty of big spots, which helps soften the impact of this particular problem area.
Do they have the big-shot maker? College basketball legends are made in March. Simply go back through the sport's history just this millennium; players like Kemba Walker, Mario Chalmers, Anthony Davis, and many more have used the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament to forever go down in college basketball lore. Even among teams that typically don't have one signature star, there's usually one or two big-shot makers that can carry their teams through the huge moments. Think of Christian Braun or Ochai Agbaji on last year's Kansas or Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell on Baylor as recent examples. Looking at this Purdue team, do they have that one guy? Edey may be the NPOY frontrunner and has made big shots, but he's not your prototypical late-game isolation scorer that can create off the dribble. Perhaps Smith or Loyer could take on that role, but that's not clear as it stands today. The Boilermakers may not necessarily need just one, but it's something I've wondered when watching this team. Go back to their lone defeat of the year, when Rutgers guard Cam Spencer hit a huge three with 14 seconds left. It felt like Purdue didn't have a player that could respond, and the last possession was ugly, a bunch of back-and-forth passes that didn't move the defense before a missed three from Brandon Newman, a career 37% shooter.
Those pesky March demons ... I've always felt that using past March Madness experiences to argue against the current version of a team is a weak one, but there's no denying that Purdue has some NCAA Tournaments demons to overcome. Painter is probably the nation's top active coach who hasn't reached a Final Four now that Mark Few has gone to a pair, something that has to be at the front of his mind. It's not fair to say the Boilermakers have been complete disappointments, considering they've been to the second weekend four times since 2016 and could have easily played in a Final Four in 2019, but they just haven't quite been able to get over the top. The last two NCAA Tournament appearances in particular have felt incredibly deflating; losing to Saint Peter's with Jaden Ivey and three-seed billing felt even worse than the first round upset in 2021. Painter and this Purdue program are going to reach a Final Four at some point, he's too good of a coach not to. But, the first one always feels like the toughest.

The Verdict
The Boilermakers are the betting favorite to take it all in Houston this spring, which makes sense. Not only have they built an impressive resume, they've watched many other top contenders drop like flies, including an Alabama team that was thumped this past weekend by unranked Oklahoma. In a lot of ways, they check all the boxes you want for a National Title contender. They have a star player leading the way, a proven, well-respected head coach, ample experience, and depth. But, there's just something about this team that's holding me back from making a full-throated endorsement. Maybe it's the young guards, maybe it's the way they play, maybe it's just the fact we haven't seen this program play in a Final Four in four decades. Something about them as a true National Title favorite feels a bit off. That doesn't mean I'm against Purdue, I wouldn't be shocked if I still have them going deep by the time brackets drop. But let's put it this way: if this was a hand of poker, I'd fold instead of going "all-in" in the way I would have with past No. 1 or 2 teams at this point in the year.

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