In winning their first fourteen games of the season the Purdue Boilermakers did nothing to dispel the notion that they had a very good chance of getting to the Final Four. But while a record of 14-3 is nothing to disregard there have been some worrisome issues for Matt Painter's squad, who dropped their third consecutive game on Saturday. And the biggest issue may be the tallest man in the rotation, JaJuan Johnson. Over the last three games the junior has averaged just six points per game and struggled through eighteen foul-plagued minutes in Evanston before fouling out. And while he isn't a big man who will score 25-30 points a night his presence is a necessity for this team. Purdue was outrebounded 42-23 on Saturday and Johnson finished with just two boards, something that shouldn't happen against a team that is smaller across the board.
Purdue makes just 31.2% of their shots from behind the arc on the season, making it rather apparent that they need to spend more of their time scoring points inside of the arc and a successful Johnson would help out in that area. The Boilermakers attempted 23 three-pointers against Northwestern, making just five while the Wildcats made four of ten attempts. And given the offensive system that Northwestern runs they're the team that's more likely to shoot more than twenty shots behind the arc. Purdue was able to take twenty-seven threes in their loss to Ohio State because of how hot Robbie Hummel was but that's not what will make them successful as the season progresses.
As for the Wildcats this was a big win for a team that desperately needed a quality win to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume. Michael "Juice" Thompson led the way with 20 points and Luka Mirkovic added sixteen but the star late was freshman Drew Crawford (15 points). Crawford was aggressive down the stretch and made the "winning plays" for Bill Carmody's squad. While they're nowhere near a lock for the NCAA Tournament Northwestern took full advantage of the opportunity presented to them. As for Matt Painter's team they've got Illinois on the road in their next contest and Mr. Johnson will need to show up if they're to end their current skid.
Three Key Happenings
1. Until they find a consistent primary option on the perimeter North Carolina will struggle. Of course Will Graves caught fire in the second half to lead the Tar Heels back from a double-digit deficit before falling to Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill. But who among the perimeter players at Roy Williams' fingertips is a true go-to guy in either finding his own shot or creating for others? Larry Drew II? He turned the ball over five times (nine assists) and shot 1-for-8 from the field. Marcus Ginyard? 1-for-4, two points on the afternoon. And even Graves, who finished with 24 points, shot 6-for-13 from the field with eight of those shots (five made) coming from behind the arc.
Make no mistake about it: losing a big man the caliber of Tyler Zeller hurts the Carolina rotation. But the biggest problems for this team lie on the perimeter, an area that was also exploited defensively by Iman Shumpert (30 points, six assists, three steals). An individual performance like that can happen from time to time, it's a part of the game. But those performances hurt even more when you don't have your own option to turn to in order to make things happen. Some will point to Graves' second half and say that he can be the one to take care of that and maybe so. And for the sake of North Carolina's season they need to find out the answer (be it Graves or someone else) sooner rather than later.
2. Syracuse picks up another good win away from the Carrier Dome. Jim Boeheim's team has just about reached the point where you pick them to win regardless of the venue, beating West Virginia 72-71 in Morgantown. The game didn't lack for drama as the Mountaineers nearly completed a late rally from ten down to steal victory from the jaws of defeat but the Orange were tougher against the Mountaineers than they were against Rutgers (they won that one comfortably) on Wednesday. Brandon Triche led the Orange with 16 points and as a team they shot 57..8% from the field on an afternoon that saw them turn the ball over twenty times.
The two main scorers for West Virginia (Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks) shot a combined 9-for-25 from the field, limiting the impact of solid shooting days from Truck Bryant (18 points) and freshman Dalton Pepper (15 points). Another key was the bench play, as the Mountaineers were only a +2 in bench points despite Pepper's performance. Kris Joseph scored thirteen off the bench for the Orange, making up for a sub par effort from Scoop Jardine (16 min., 3 TO). Syracuse picked up their fourth win this season over a ranked opponent, adding one more reason to like this team as a Final Four possibility in the process.
3. Tennessee will now test their new and improved team chemistry. The Volunteers' 72-69 overtime win at home on Saturday was yet another test of the Volunteers' mettle, coming back from a 52-40 deficit with 9:18 remaining in regulation. The key for Ole Miss, who dropped their tenth straight at Tennessee, was turnovers. The Rebels turned the ball over twenty-one times, miscues the Volunteers converted into 20 points. Wayne Chism led the way with 26 points and 12 rebounds in forty-one minutes while Chris Warren's 19 led the visitors. But with the next stage in their "adjustment" in front of them it will be interesting to see how Bruce Pearl handles his team.
Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum were reinstated on Saturday, making them eligible to practice beginning on Sunday and they will play against Alabama on Tuesday night. Both are talented and will add to the rotation but the key is not upsetting the chemistry of the guys who've been playing well in their absence. Both players should be ready to fit into any role given to them, and the team's recent success can be used by Coach Pearl and his staff as a subtle reminder to those two that this team can accomplish things with them on the sidelines should they upset the flow. But for the sake of players like Chism, J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson it's good that Goins and Tatum will be back from a fatigue standpoint. How they mesh will likely determine how far the Vols go the remainder of the season.
Top Three Games
1. Tennessee 72, Ole Miss 69 (OT) See above.
2. Texas 72, Texas A&M 67 The Longhorns took the first of two meetings between the rivals in Austin with Damion James (26 points, 12 rebounds) making the big plays down the stretch. Donald Sloan led the Aggies with 21 points.
3. Syracuse 72, West Virginia 71 See above.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Chris Gaston (Fordham) Gaston is one of the best freshmen that you've heard little (or nothing) about due to his team's lack of success. But he accounted for 29 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in a loss to Rhode Island, his tenth double-double of the season.
2. F/C Hassan Whiteside (Marshall) Here's another freshman phenom, although his team has enjoyed much more success in the win column. Whiteside, who already has seven double-doubles and two triple-doubles, paced the Thundering Herd with 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks in a 89-79 win over Tulane.
3. G Devan Downey (South Carolina) Downey did his best to carry the Gamecocks to a win over Vanderbilt but fell short through no fault of his own. The senior scored 35 points while also accounting for six steals, five rebounds and four assists.