The no. 25 Rutgers men’s basketball team is back in action on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET) against Purdue at the RAC, where they own the best home record in the nation at 14-0. They remained in the national rankings for a second consecutive week after a 41 year absence previously. The Scarlet Knights will look to stay on track against the Boilermakers. Both teams are excellent on the defensive end and it should make for a grind it out, tough basketball game that could go either way.
In an effort to find out more about Tuesday night’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Travis Miller, who is the founder and site manager of SB Nation’s Purdue site, Hammer & Rails. The Boilermakers have been inconsistent so far this season, but have played a challenging schedule and as usual, have plenty of talent on its roster. Read below to find out Travis’ take on Purdue and the matchup with Rutgers.
AB: What were the expectations for Purdue entering this season and what is your assessment of this team so far?
TM: As Purdue the bare minimum expectation each season is to make the NCAA Tournament. I feel like as a program, we have risen to that point, and as we have seen in recent years, sometimes all you have to do is get in in order to make a run. That said, we have been on a runt hat is among our best in modern program history. We had two Big Ten titles in three years and came a single rebound from making it three straight. That was very close to our 1994-96 run of three straight. We’ve also reached the second weekend of March for three straight years for only the second time ever (1998-2000). It has been a great run, but after losing Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline most fans expected a step back, but that we could still compete.
Overall, it has been a frustrating year. Purdue is 11-9, but the computer numbers are still very strong against a tough schedule. We’re a possession away from big wins at Michigan and on a neutral floor against Florida State. We also looked really good for a half at Marquette and somehow had it to a four-point game with Butler late despite playing some terrible basketball for most of the afternoon.
Then there have been some awful, awful moments. The loss at Nebraska was really bad. We looked terrible offensively in both Illinois games. We had Texas beat but gave that game away. I think the most shocking thing is that we have been mortal at home. Yeah, we have blown out Virginia, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in Mackey. But we lost two games in West Lafayette when we had only five losses in the previous five years total. We were also very, very lucky to beat Minnesota.
AB: Efficiency wise Purdue has always been strong on both ends of the floor, but this season has been different with the team being elite defensively (10th) and less dominant offensively (72nd). What are the biggest reasons for the shift?
TM: We are feast or famine on offense and away from home it is even more pronounced. To win, Purdue needs to get on the defensive glass and it needs its wings to hit a few early threes. We have mostly struggled because Aaron Wheeler has been in a season-long slump, Jahaad Proctor faded after a strong start, and we still need consistency out of our guards like Sasha Stefanovic, Isaiah Thompson, and Eric Hunter Jr. They have all had some really good moments and have all really struggled at times. Until we get consistency, Purdue’s offense will be all over the place.
AB: Purdue is 0-4 on the road in Big Ten play this season, including at Nebraska. What have been the biggest reason for their struggles away from Mackey Arena?
TM: Again. Offensive consistency. We have had too many moments where we get in an offensive funk and don’t score for 5-7 minutes. At Illinois we didn’t score at all until just before the 13-minute mark. At Nebraska we were ice cold to start and no one could hit. Against Maryland we had another really slow start. The best game was at Michigan where we came up just short in double overtime. To have a chance on Tuesday we need someone, anyone, to hit an early three or two to gain some confidence and open things up.
AB: In looking at the advanced stats, Purdue is very good at minimizing turnovers while forcing opponent mistakes at a high rate. How important is it to the success of this team to capitalize on turnovers while protecting the basketball on the offensive end and has that been an obvious factor in wins & losses?
TM: Very important, but I think the larger issue is the defensive glass. Strangely, we are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the conference, but one of the worst defensive rebounding teams. Illinois crushed us on the offensive glass both games. Against Wisconsin on Friday we were a completely different team when it came to rebounding and it made a huge difference. We cannot give up second chances like we did against the Illini or the result will not be different.
AB: What are you most confident about with Purdue in this matchup against Rutgers and what concerns you the most?
TM: I really like Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms inside. They are two of the best big men in the conference and when we can open things up for them by hitting some early threes. Therein likes my concern, however. Purdue is not going to win if it doesn’t hit some open shots early. Purdue has done a decent job of fighting back after slow starts like at Maryland, Butler, and even at Nebraska (they had it down to two with plenty of time in the second half), but if the offense gets stagnant it will be a long night.
AB: How do you think this game will play out and what will be the difference for the winning team?
TM: It is going to be very interesting. It is the two best defensive teams that can each have trouble shooting from outside. I think we’re in for a rockfight where the first team to 50 wins. That’s okay though. I have no problem winning 54-52 and we had the ugliest win in Big Ten history last year at Indiana. If that is what it takes, so be it.