WEST LAFAYETTE – The coronavirus bug has finally bitten Purdue.
Though the Boilermakers have had "a few" cases when they first came back to campus in June, according to coach Matt Painter, they had avoided positive tests from the virus since the season began. That changed this afternoon when guard Sasha Stefanovic tested positive for COVID-19. Stefanovic, who is averaging 11.1 points while shooting 45.6% from 3-point range, will miss at least the next three games and will have to sit out 17 days following his positive test, per Big Ten rules.
This is a significant blow for the Boilermakers. Not only is Stefanovic a starter and the team's best 3-point shooter, he was turning into a terrific all-around offensive player and had arguably the best game of his career from a playmaking perspective Tuesday in Purdue's win over Ohio State, consistently getting past his defender and into the lane for mid-range shots. The Boilers will have to lean on their depth to make up for the absence of one of their most reliable scorers.
The timing of the positive test is also difficult for Purdue. The Boilermakers are facing one of their toughest challenges of the season tonight when they welcome No. 7 Michigan to Mackey Arena. The Wolverines are in first place in the Big Ten all by themselves following Indiana's upset win over Iowa on Thursday and they have been absolutely fearsome over the last couple of months. Michigan's last three Big Ten wins have come by an average of 24 points and two of those games were against ranked teams. The Wolverines led by as many as 40 against a solid Wisconsin team and they rank in the top 15 in the country in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. It's a well-rounded group that is supremely well-led under second-year coach Juwan Howard. Michigan is a Final Four contender and it brings a four-game winning streak against Purdue into tonight's matchup.
So how can the Boilermakers cope with the loss of Stefanovic and keep their four-game winning streak going? The answer is two-fold: lean on their depth, especially freshman Jaden Ivey, and get the ball inside even more than they would have before. Ivey hit the game-winning shot against the Buckeyes and had a career-high 15 points in that matchup. He's been slowly earning more playing time and it's likely that he takes many of the minutes that were going to Stefanovic. Fellow true freshman Ethan Morton and sophomore Isaiah Thompson could get some extra run, as well, but Ivey is the player Purdue will lean on to provide some scoring punch.
Then too, with Stefanovic out, there is simply that much more pressure on centers Trevion Williams and Zach Edey. The pair has their hands full tonight taking on 7-foot-1 Michigan center Hunter Dickinson, one of the best freshman in the country and a terrific all-around player already. He's fearsome on both ends of the floor and Williams and Edey will, as always, have to do a good job of defending without fouling. They'll also probably have to carry a little bit more of the scoring load without Stefanovic's shooting on the outside. That could be difficult because Michigan has been stifling in the paint this season, holding opponents to barely 40% from 2-point range, the fourth-best mark in the country in that area. Dickinson's length and skill make life difficult for opponents because Michigan doesn't have to double the post in order to keep opposing bigs from scoring. This will be one of the few games in which Purdue doesn't have a significant advantage down low.
The Boilermakers enter tonight as one of the hottest teams in the country. They have a chance to make a statement about their intention to be a Big Ten title contender and take down one of the teams between them and the top of the league in the process. It's unclear whether this young team is quite ready to play at that high of a level yet, especially without its best floor-stretcher, Stefanovic, on the court tonight. The victory over the 15th-ranked Buckeyes was plenty promising, but Purdue has much more to prove and it can start against the Maize and Blue.