This year's Crimson Tide basketball team will experience several firsts this afternoon: its first time on national television, its first true road game, and its first ranked opponent. Bama will travel to West Lafayette, Indiana, to take on the #18 Purdue Boilermakers on their home court in what will be by far the Tide's toughest test of the young season. The game, scheduled to tip off at 2:30pm C.T., will be televised nationally by ESPN2.
In his fifth season at the helm, Purdue alum Matt Painter has led the Boilermakers to the top of the Big Ten and embedded them into the national top 25. Last season the Boilers spent most of the season in the top 10 and went on to claim a share of the Big Ten title, and many people had them projected as a Final Four favorite throughout the season. Just two weeks before the end of the regular season, however, Purdue lost its best player, Robbie Hummel, to a season-ending ACL injury, and Purdue's postseason expectations went down with him. Still, the Boilermakers made it to the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual national champions Duke, and with their top players set to return for this year, they were instantly pegged as a national title contender for this season.
Before the first game was even played though, lightning struck twice and Hummel went down with another ACL injury that will cause him to miss this season. Even with their top player set to miss the season and having to deal with the loss of a couple of other key players from last year's team, Purdue found themselves in the preseason top 10 in the coaches poll. After starting off with 5 easy wins, Purdue was upset by Richmond a week ago before bouncing back this week with a quality road win at Virginia Tech. They are currently projected as a #6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Purdue has two studs who return from last year's Big Ten championship team that cause nightmares for opposing coaches. Senior guard E'Twuan Moore leads they way in scoring at a whopping 19.9 points per game. He also leads the team in steals and is second on the team with nearly 3 assists per outing. Oh yeah, and he also averages 6.1 rebounds--pretty much the highest total you'll ever see from a guard on the college level. He can score inside, outside, and from the stripe--he averages nearly 2 made 3's per game while shooting 40% from the arc, can get to the rim and score in the paint frequently, and averages over 4 made free throws per game. He's a legitimate All-Big Ten selection and he can hurt us in pretty much every way imaginable. Senario Hillman or whomever guards Moore better come ready to lace 'em up tight.
Purdue's other star is 6'10" senior forward JaJuan Johnson, who averages a monster 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Johnson is extremely athletic for his size and is capable of changing the game on both ends of the floor. He averages over 2 blocks per contest and is a very effective defender. He's obviously a very good rebounder. And on the offensive end he can stretch post players out away from the basket as evidenced by his 4 made 3's this season. He can hit jumpers and score around the rim, and like Moore, he's very effective at drawing fouls and getting to the stripe. No word yet on whether or not JaMychal Green was on the flight to Indiana yesterday, but no news is bad news for us in this case. We have to assume that Green will sit this one out, and if so that's a real shame because he's the only player we have that can even attempt to match what Johnson does for Purdue. If Green remains suspended, the job of handling Johnson will fall to Chris Hines and Carl Engstrom. Let's hope they're up to the task of at least slowing him down.
Purdue's starter at the point is junior Lewis Jackson, who leads the team with 3.5 assists per game but isn't much of a scoring threat. Freshman guard Terone Johnson and sophomore wing D.J. Byrd round out the 4-guard starting lineup. Johnson is a strong combo guard who can create on his own and could emerge as a rising star as his freshman season goes on. Byrd is a solid all-around wing player who can shoot and rebound and really started to step up last year after Hummel went down. The player the Tide defense might need to most pay attention to though is sophomore guard John Hart, a deadly 3-point specialist who averages exactly 2 made 3-pointers per game despite coming off the bench. The Boilers have two other perimeter players coming off the bench who are capable of scoring in junior guard Ryne Smith and sophomore wing Kelsey Barlow, both of whom have starting experience. The bottom line is that keying in solely on Moore on the perimeter is something teams can't do with Purdue thanks to their quality depth on the perimeter and plethora of shooters.
Since Painter usually only goes with one true post player at a time, there aren't a lot of opportunities for playing time there behind JaJuan Johnson. 6'8" sophomore forward Patrick Bade gets the first look off the bench in the post, with 6'9" freshman Sandi Marcius providing depth. Alabama's actually quite fortunate that Purdue plays mostly with a small lineup, especially if as expected Green is still suspended. Grant may well be able to get away with playing only one true post player at a time and sliding Tony Mitchell to the 4 position, a spot where he's been extremely effective in Green's absence.
This may very well be our toughest game of the non-conference slate, and could be our toughest road game of the entire season (though trips to Providence, Oklahoma State, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida won't be fun either). We don't have anyone on our roster of the caliber of E'Twuan Moore and JaJuan Johnson, and we don't have the kind of quality depth that Purdue does on their roster, not to mention we'll be playing on Purdue's home court in front of a hostile crowd in a basketball-mad state. In order to play up to our own potential in this challenging test, Trevor Releford and company will need to find ways to create good shots for the offense and do a better job protecting the ball than we have of late. Defensively we need to play hard and play disciplined, avoiding needless fouls that Purdue can use to cash in cheap points at the stripe, and find ways to create turnovers that can lead to transition opportunities and take the crowd out of the game.
If we do these things well on such a hostile court and against such a quality opponent, it will bode well for the remainder of our season regardless of the result. In order to win though, we'll need to not only perform at a high level in those key areas but also find a way to slow down Moore and Johnson. If we allow those two to have their way with us we'll have no chance, as we simply don't have answers right now for that kind of talent. If we can hold one or both of them in check--tasks that will likely fall largely to Hillman and Hines respectively--then the game will likely come down to the same factors I discussed above. And as always, our ability to knock down some 3's will be crucial. We typically get about 12-15 good looks from the arc each game. The difference between a cold shooting night (we hit 16% against Iowa) and a hot shooting night (say, 50%) then could be as much as 15 points or so.
Regardless of the result, we'll know a lot more about this team based on the way we compete today. Hope for the best.