A year ago, Purdue was up and down through the early part of its men's basketball schedule, reaching the new year at 8-5. When the calendar page flipped to 2019, the Boilermakers ripped off nine wins in 10 games on their way to a Big Ten title.
Though the cast of characters is different, this year's Boilers again find themselves at 8-5 thanks to uneven play from game to game. Starting with tonight's matchup in Mackey Arena against Minnesota, Purdue is hoping to duplicate the late-season surge that propelled them to an Elite Eight appearance last season.
Coach Matt Painter is still developing trust in this team as the season progresses. He knows he has a talented group of players, but he needs to see execution on a consistent basis.
“We're in the same position that we were last year,” Painter said. “We didn't have guys who you could ultimately trust at this time last year. But once you show that consistency, you live with somebody's mistakes. That's when you know the good outweighs the bad, when you live with somebody's mistakes.”
The 7-5 Golden Gophers, the Boilermakers' first opponent of the new decade, appear to be hitting their stride after a tough start. Minnesota has won three in a row, including a home victory over previously undefeated and third-ranked Ohio State.
In the victory over the Buckeyes, sophomore guard Marcus Carr poured in 35 points on 12-for-17 shooting, while 6-foot-10 center Daniel Oturu, who ranks ninth in the country in blocks, had 14 points and 13 rebounds. Those two, along with sharp-shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur, form the nucleus of a Minnesota team that has weathered the loss of long-time stars Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey to the NBA.
“Anytime you have a big three like that with the guys they have, where you have three people who can get 30 points on any given night, that gives you cause for concern,” Painter said.
Oturu in particular has been a load for opposing teams, averaging 18.3 points and 11.7 rebounds. The Boilermakers are better-suited to slow him down because of their size. That's especially true with 7-3 center Matt Haarms back after missing two games with concussion-like symptoms. He played 12 minutes off the bench Saturday against Central Michigan and had 11 points. He should play a larger role against the Golden Gophers.
Recently, the Boilermakers have also gotten expanded production from freshman guard Isaiah Thompson. The brother of former Purdue guard P.J. Thompson has played at least 25 minutes in three of the last four games and has shot 36% from 3-point range in that span, providing a much-needed threat from the outside when Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. are off the court.
“I always try to look to be aggressive,” Thompson said. “Obviously you have to pick your spots and try to make the right play, whether that's getting in the lane, making a play for yourself or your teammates.
“The guys (teammates) keep giving me confidence to shoot the basketball. I know I've been aggressive all my life, so why stop now?”
The slightly built 6-1, 165-pound Thompson has also held his own on the defensive end and will need to be at his best against Minnesota's talented guards, especially if Nojel Eastern gets into foul trouble.
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Purdue vs. Minnesota
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette
Records: Purdue (8-5, 1-1 Big Ten), Minnesota (7-5, 1-1)
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM