WEST LAFAYETTE – The first five minutes of Purdue's 67-60 win over No. 20 Ohio State tonight at Mackey Arena were a glimpse of just how good this Boilermakers team can be on the defensive end.
Purdue is long, athletic and well-coached and it features a group of players that are more than willing to play hard on that end of the floor. The Boilermakers took Ohio State out of what it wanted to do on offense from the opening tip and – outside of a run of seven field goals in eight attempts for the Buckeyes midway through the first half – never let the visitors get going. This team is beginning to mesh and it could be fearsome defensively before the season is over.
Trevion Williams and Eric Hunter Jr. said the "cat was out of the bag" after this game. It certainly is. Purdue has pieces and the rest of the Big Ten can't write off the Boilermakers as a team that's a year away from contention.
"I thought we did a pretty good job of just bottling them up at times," coach Matt Painter said. "We didn't want them to live at the free throw line. ... I thought when we were keeping them out of the paint, we were having a lot of success. Late in the game, they got in there a couple of times and we had a couple good contests, we took a charge, we were around the basketball.
"I thought our guys were really active, especially in the first half. ... I just thought we were more active tonight than we have been. Even though we've rebounded the ball well this season, I liked the way we competed when the ball got loose. We did a much better job in that area."
Obviously, the difficult part for Purdue will be to maintain that defensive intensity and want-to through a long Big Ten season that will have no let-up in terms of the quality of competition. Ohio State, which was undefeated coming into the game tonight, was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to talent in this conference. Next up – after the Crossroads Classic on Saturday against Notre Dame – will be undefeated No. 3 Iowa on the road Tuesday.
The good news is that Trevion Williams seems to have found his way after a difficult start to the season. After a 30-point performance against Indiana State, he showed off his entire game against the Buckeyes, scoring 16 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing a career-high eight assists. He scored and passed from a wide variety of angles and I continue to believe he's maybe the best passing big man in the country. He's a star and if he's playing the way he did tonight, Purdue has a chance to win a lot of games.
But the junior big man didn't do it alone. He had help from Eric Hunter Jr., who had 15 points, as well as some of the team's younger players. Brandon Newman had 10 points and seven rebounds after a couple of quiet games, while Mason Gillis had six points on 3-for-3 shooting and Zach Edey grabbed five rebounds. Getting Edey back into a reserve role behind Williams as the freshman develops his game is huge for Purdue. Edey can be a force off the bench, but he's too prone to foul trouble right now to be a 25-minute per game player.
Another youngster who saw significant minutes was freshman Jaden Ivey. Ivey played in his first game since the season-opener against Liberty and had four points on 2-of-7 shooting after sitting out because of a stress fracture in his foot. He missed his first three shots in a row, including two air balls, because he had a little too much energy when he finally got back into the game. Still, he found a way to contribute and it's clear his confidence level remains high. He brings more scoring punch to a Purdue backcourt that could use it. The Mishawaka native was also humorously candid about his early misses.
"My adrenaline was pumping when I first came in the game," Ivey said, laughing. "I came off a screen and I was wide open and I air-balled and that took (my adrenaline) down a little bit."
One disappointing part of this game that hadn't really sunk in until tonight was how different the experience is at Mackey when the stadium is nearly empty. There were a couple of second-half Purdue runs that pushed the lead to as many as 14 points and in a normal year would have made it feel like the roof was going to cave in at the arena. Instead, the pumped-in crowd noise droned on as if nothing had changed.
Under those circumstances, Purdue had to bring its own enthusiasm and it did so to an encouraging extent with its own play.
"I talked to our guys before the game and said, 'We have to create our own energy,'" Painter said. "But you have to create your energy through positive play. You gotta do your job, you gotta make plays and I thought we did that tonight."
It's just another example of a Purdue team that is growing up and growing together early in this season. The Boilermakers have a Big Ten win and some solid performances to build upon when the conference schedule gets under way in earnest next week.