The biggest question heading into today’s Arkansas-Little Rock–Purdue matchup is a question of bigs: How will the Trojans, whose starting center is 6’11” and 210 pounds, will handle a powerful Purdue front line that goes 6’9″, 7’0″ and 7’2″? How quickly both sides’ bigs get into foul trouble will play a large role in deciding this NCAA Tournament first-round game in which almost every online college basketball sportsbook lists Purdue as a favorite.
“We’re going to have to double team some,” Trojans head coach Chris Beard told Dan Dakich this week. “We’re going to have to take some chances with some single guards. We do have two big kids on our roster. Lis Shoshi is our starting center. He’s a junior college transfer, he’s a good player. He had an offer from Minnesota and Texas Tech, so we beat some big schools on him.”
Beard added, “Then we’ve got a big fifth year transfer, Daniel Green, who played at Wake Forest for four years. Daniel’s about 6’10” so we’ve got 2 guys that I think can match up decently, but other than that, now we’re starting to play 6’4″, 6’5″ undersized guys … so we’re going to really try to help our guys in coaching and game planning.”
For perspective from the Boilermakers’ corner, check out these excerpts from Purdue beat reporter Nathan Baird. Baird spoke with Trey Schapp of the Buzz 103.7 FM earlier this week:
Q: If there is a recipe for Little Rock to try to beat Purdue, what should they try?
Nathan Baird:“[Purdue] came into the season I think with some cautiously high expectations. They had a lot of talent back from last year and added a really good power forward freshman in Caleb Swanigan, who was a national recruit for that mix. I think that this season played out about how I expected. I thought that they would be about a 26-, 27-win team, and that’s right in the ballpark they’re at. Some of the things that you would traditionally associate with Purdue basketball in terms of a blue-collar work ethic, tough man-to-man defense, those sort of things — at least here in the Big 10 sometimes that’s kind of what they’re known for.
What they’ve sort of flipped the script with is adding that power forward in. They play a traditionally big lineup. They’ve got two 7-foot centers. They’re kind of interchangeable. One’s better than the other, but the backup is pretty good, too, and Swanigan next to that as power forward. That’s a really tough combo for a lot of teams to try to match up with. That’s the really big thing going into a tournament like this is how are these other teams … Very few teams are going to have that kind of size and skill combination in the front court. How are teams going to try to match up with that?”
Q:Nathan, with all that length, do they have much athleticism?
Nathan Baird: A little bit. They’re not a very fast team and they’ve gotten in trouble a couple times against teams that are throwing zone press or something out there. They’ve got a couple guys that have some athleticism. Their starting point guard, or most of their point guards are probably two of the more athletic guys they have – P.J. Thompson and Johnny Hill.
They’ve got a guy named Vince Edward who’s the “3” 6’8″ forward. He played the “4” last year as a freshman and has moved over this year. They’ve got some of that athleticism, but they’re not an essentially quick team. They pick their spots as far as transition. They like to get out and attack and be opportunistic that way. But they don’t really necessarily push the tempo as a matter of their identity.
At the same time, the 7-footers they have aren’t stiffs. A.J. Hammons was a first team All Big 10 player. He’s the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Really athletic around the basket, has really become a lot more skilled, has a lot of post moves there, has even pulled the team out more toward the perimeter this year for the first time.
His backup is a sophomore who’s 7’2″, 285 pounds — a kid named Isaac Haas from Alabama. As [Purdue coach] Matt Painter said the other night, if I played him 35 minutes a game, he’d be first team All Big 10. Unfortunately, he can’t play that much. He’s probably a 16-18 minute player at the most, usually, because Hammons gets the bulk of those duties just because he’s such a defensive player, especially in the second half. It’s not necessarily that they’re especially athletic, but they’re pretty skilled and they do a lot of little things right.
Q: How deep is Matt Painter’s bench and how do you think the Denver altitude might affect the game?
Nathan Baird: They go about nine deep and they’ve really got multiple options at each position. Again, they are a bigger team. They rely on those big guys to play a lot of minutes. What’s an interesting angle here is some of those guys I’ve already mentioned – Vince Edward, who’s a 6’8″ guy, Caleb Swanigan, the 6’9″, 250 power forward, and Isaac Haas, the behemoth that they have as a backup center – all of those guys played in Colorado Springs last year in various camps, Swanigan and Edwards with USA Basketball and Haas as part of the PanAm Games tryouts.
Some of their biggest guys, ones who would be maybe the most vulnerable to the altitude, you would expect, all have some experience playing at altitudes. Even if it’s just limited experience. I think that’s going to help them a little bit this week.
All four of these teams are going to have to adjust to it. I don’t know how much of an advantage it’s going to give anybody. The fact that those three guys in particular, for themselves, know how to adjust to it… I was talking to them after the game yesterday and basically said, ‘That first day, you’re out there running, and man it burns. It hurts. You can definitely feel it.’ It’s going to be a matter of just playing through that and not letting it affect you, getting it out of your mind. That could be an advantage for Purdue, just because those guys know what they’re feeling, know how to get through that.
Some of your big guys can shoot the ball a little bit, and that can be an advantage. If you can take those seven-footers and Swanigan and pull them away from the basket by being able to make shots from the perimeter, teams have done that and won.
Iowa was a tough matchup with Purdue that way. They beat them twice. The first loss of the year was at Illinois and Illinois did some of those same things. Some other teams have done that. If you can take one of those 6’9″, 6’10”, 6’11” kind of guys and those guys can hit shots from the perimeter and make Purdue’s seven-footers come out, it opens things up for the whole offense, because now you don’t have that guy protecting the rim and you can get in there other ways, too. You don’t have to score just from the perimeter that way.
That would be one way. The other way is Purdue has been susceptible to high turnovers. It’s not necessarily just one thing, it’s they’ll have travels and a moving screen and then just throw a ball out of bounds… Teams have not only turned them over, but then created offense off of those turnovers. If Purdue wants to make a run in the tournament, against most teams, they’ll be the first ones to tell you, they’ve got to take care of the ball better than they have in some of their other big games this year.
Q: What was Matt Painter’s reaction to the 5 seed and going up against a 12 in a team like Little Rock?
Nathan Baird: He was pretty nonchalant about it. He’s a really pragmatic coach. He’s not the guy who’s usually very demonstrative. There’s times where we’ll ask about something that’s going on in college basketball and he’s very quick a lot of times to say, ‘Well, I haven’t studied that myself. I don’t want to say something.’ I give him credit for that. Here’s part of his reasoning: If we were a few spots higher up on the seed list, then maybe you could swap us and Iowa State and then we’d still be the 4. There’s not really a difference there.
He and a lot of other people, and obviously up here we’re going to say this, but they think the Big 10 as a whole was underseeded. In fact, Painter said, ‘I think Indiana should have been a 3 instead of a 4.’ I had to say, ‘Actually, they were a 5.’ He was like, ‘Oh, really? Wow.’
Then he really got bummed out. Everyone thought Michigan State was going to be a 1 and they ended up a 2. Again, it’s razor-thin between a 4 and a 5 on the seed list. I think sometimes fans don’t necessarily look at that.”