WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue beat Indiana State to improve to 4-2 tonight, but don't try telling coach Matt Painter that means his team played well.
The Boilermakers turned the ball over 19 times and gave up 27 points off those turnovers. In the second half, Indiana State shot 56% and Painter was boiling over the number of times the Sycamores scored on simple back-door cuts to the rim. Indiana State didn't have anyone capable of stopping Purdue's bigs in the post and the Boilermakers should have been able to cruise to a win on the strength of that alone. That they let the Sycamores hang around until the last four minutes before winning 80-68 at Mackey Arena was, to use Painter's word, "alarming."
Painter's dismay at some of his team's careless mistakes can be explained by taking a look at the schedule. The Boilermakers are out of non-conference games before the Big Ten season begins and No. 22 Ohio State invades Mackey Arena on Wednesday. If Purdue doesn't take better care of the ball and tighten up on defense, it could get run out of its own gym.
"We've gotta be better and we've gotta strive to be better than we were tonight," Painter said. "So you go to practice and you work on it, you watch film and you work on it. The light's gotta come on for some guys. That's the best way to put it. You've gotta compete, you've gotta put it on the line, but you've gotta be functional, you've gotta know what's going on. It's not like we're playing seven defenses here, we're playing one. We've got rules to what we do. Stick to those rules and compete. I don't care if you're 18 or 23.
"Everybody on our team can play. We've just gotta have more discipline. Don't give in to things. Don't let other people set the narrative on where we are. We've gotta be better than we were today."
Painter sent a message to his team about the need for change with a revamped starting lineup that featured three freshmen. It didn't work on the court – the Boilermakers trailed 10-1 in the first five minutes and freshman center Zach Edey, who made his first career start, picked up two quick fouls – but it had the desired effect. Center Trevion Williams and forward Aaron Wheeler, both veterans who saw themselves benched to start the game, enjoyed terrific performances against the Sycamores, playing the way Purdue needs them to play in order for the Boilermakers to be successful.
For Williams, that means working hard to get post position and then going to the rim strong when he catches it. It means grabbing rebounds with two hands instead of tipping the ball at the rim and it means setting screens to spring Purdue shooters open on the perimeter. He did all of those things and played a solid game defensively, as well, on his way to 30 points on 13-for-18 shooting and 11 rebounds.
For Wheeler meanwhile, activity is the key. He's one of Purdue's best athletes and although he's still struggling with his outside shot, he can affect the game in myriad ways. He can grab rebounds from all angles, he can block shots from the weak side when a Purdue defender is beaten off the dribble, he is capable of hitting shots from the outside when he shoots with confidence. He is the prototypical "Stretch 4" that every NBA team employs in the modern era. Tonight, he showed how valuable that can be with 10 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. It was his first double-double since Nov. 16, 2019.
"I think they both played well," Painter said of Williams and Wheeler, two of his veterans. "The way Indiana State pressured us and tried to take the ball away opened up the ability to feed the post. Any time you can get deep position and stay one-on-one, I thought Trevion did a good job of just going right at them. Aaron was just active and that's what he needs to do. He made a couple of shots for us and that's great, but more than anything just rebound and he had four blocks, which was great.
"Those are the type of games that those guys have to have consistently. Especially the rebounding. You don't expect someone to score 30 points every night, you don't expect four blocks every night, but you can rebound every single night out. That was a great sign those guys responded (to being benched) like they did."
The rest of the offensive performance was well-balanced for Purdue with Eric Hunter Jr. (13 points), Sasha Stefanovic (12) and Edey (10) all scoring in double figures. This game was won inside, with Edey and Williams combining for 40 points in 40 minutes. Indiana State refused to double the post, preferring to pressure the Boilermaker guards and try to jump passing lanes. Purdue feasted in the paint, but it also gave the ball away far too much.
"It's a lack of concentration if you ask me," Painter said of the turnovers.
That has to be fixed before Ohio State comes in Wednesday. Indiana State was a game opponent, but this was a tune-up game for better teams coming up. The Boilermakers got some great performances from players that needed to get going, but major questions remain.