The Purdue Boilermakers lost to Bucknell, 70-65, in their opener in what was both a minor upset and a disappointment for Purdue, but frankly not a huge surprise. That is not to say that I think Purdue is bad, they’re not. They aren’t going to be world-beaters, by any stretch, but they should be an average Big Ten team, and challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid.
First, lets look at why they lost. Bucknell is good. A lot of Purdue fans probably have not heard about Bucknell very much. They just sound like another small school that a big school would host in their opener, to squash to raise confidence. They are no Slippery Rock or Bryant, they are a real, high quality mid-major. Last season they won 25 games, and even beat Arizona by double digits in the NIT. They are a very experienced team that played with poise. They did not make mistakes, and made Purdue have to go out and beat them.
Purdue, a younger team, could not do that Friday. It is worth noting that the Boilermakers were missing Terone Johnson, one of their best scorers. His replacement, Anthony Johnson was good, as he filled up the stat sheet. He recorded eight points, five rebounds and nine assists.
The two big deficiencies that hurt Purdue were free throw shooting and three point shooting. At the line Bucknell outshot Purdue 20-7, with the Boilermakers making just 7 0f 15 attempts. In a game that was extremely close in the final minute every point matters. As the old saying goes; you got to make your free throws.
Three point shooting is something that comes and goes. Every team has a few games every season where they cannot buy a free throw. The rim circumference shrinks and the offense becomes an orchestra of clanks. That is what happened to Purdue last night as they made just 2 of 16 attempts. D.J. Byrd led the bad shooting performance with a 2-7 output, while nobody else on the team managed one three point make. This problem has two solutions.
1. You can continue to shoot. Likely, you will continue to miss the long range shots, as it becomes more of a mental problem. This will hurt the team’s entire game, by frustrating them, causing a loss of focus. It is possible that the threes start to drop, but it is unlikely.
2. The other obvious option is that the team changes their offensive strategy. When the wing player gets the ball they attack the paint, instead of settling for threes. Being aggressive opens up the defense, and can lead to either layups or getting fouled. It is the equivalent to when the passing game is not working in football. A smart coach will run the ball and draw defenders in to the box. Eventually, the passing game will open up, because the defense is so focused on the running game. In basketball, the defense will fear the offense getting past them and to the rim, so they backup, giving the offensive player more space. On offense the key is having options, and dictating to the defense what to do. When the defense is having to react to the offense, they are at a disadvantage.
Purdue chose the former of the two choices. This led to a period of offensive futility early in the second half, in which Bucknell pulled away with a 14-4 run.
Moving forward for Purdue, what does this loss mean for them?
They play Villanova on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, and Clemson and Xavier in the next few weeks. They will have opportunities to get things right before going through the gauntlet that is the Big Ten. The three point shooting mess on Friday was likely an aberration. They will progress to the mean. Terone Johnson will be back soon. This loss was disappointing for Purdue, but is really just a minor bump on the road. It showed that this young team has weaknesses, that were exposed. At the end of the day, a huge majority have these weaknesses, and all of them will be exposed at some point. For Purdue, that night was Friday.