P.J. Thompson

Associated Press

Scoring options, defense make No. 21 Purdue a Big Ten contender

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Entering the season the one question mark for No. 21 Purdue was how their perimeter play would combine with a talented front court. If this weekend at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut is any indication, the Boilermakers are deserving of the “contender” label in a competitive Big Ten.

Matt Painter’s team went on a 12-0 second half run Sunday afternoon, pulling away from Florida and winning what was at one time a competitive game by the final score of 85-70. What stood out for Purdue offensively this weekend was the many options they have, which allows for them to make up for off nights from an expected contributor.

One day after A.J. Hammons and Kendall Stephens combined to score 30 points off the bench in their 61-39 win over Old Dominion, it was P.J. Thompson who stepped forward against the Gators. Thompson scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists without a single turnover. Thompson’s play in the reserve point guard role not only made up for starter Johnny Hill’s quiet outing (two points, one assists, three turnovers), but it also helped Purdue account for Stephens going scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting.

In total five Boilermakers scored in double figures, with the Big Ten’s best defender in senior Rapheal Davis leading the way with 18 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and 11-for-26 from beyond the arc (which includes Stephens’ 0-for-6). Given the interior scoring Purdue can get from the likes of Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan and the all-around game of sophomore forward Vince Edwards, opportunities to score from the perimeter will be there for this group.

The key is that the guards take advantage, and to this point in the season that’s happened. And when someone, in Sunday’s case both Hill and Stephens, struggles there’s another option ready to step forward. Thompson was productive off the bench against Florida, and the same can be said of fellow guard Dakota Mathias who hit two three-pointers during the second half run that essentially decided the outcome.

Of course some will point to the level of competition Purdue ran into this weekend, but keep in mind that they beat two solid teams in Connecticut. ODU will be a contender in Conference USA, and Florida should have a good year especially once the injured Alex Murphy returns to the rotation.

Part of being a contending team is proving that you can take care of the games you’re expected to win. Thus far Purdue’s done exactly that, using the combination of an offense with multiple options and a stifling defense to get the job done. When discussing who Big Ten contenders, the Boilermakers certainly deserve mentioning.

Shooting ability of freshman guards can help Purdue’s big men

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In their 15-17 season last year Purdue endured its share of issues on the offensive end of the floor, shooting 42.7% from the field (ninth in the Big Ten) and 32.7% from beyond the arc (eighth in the Big Ten). With center A.J. Hammons back for his junior season and another seven-footer in freshman Isaac Haas expected to contribute, head coach Matt Painter is looking for options who can help space the floor with consistent perimeter shooting.

Sophomore Kendall Stephens, the team’s best returning three-point shooter, is expected to be an option but the Boilermakers will need more players to step forward on the perimeter if they’re to make a move up the Big Ten standings. In their 90-49 exhibition win over Carroll College Friday night, Purdue received contributions from two freshmen who are looking to crack the rotation.

P.J. Thompson (16 points) and Dakota Mathias (12) combined to shoot 8-for-11 from three in Purdue’s comfortable victory, and in the two exhibitions the newcomers combined to shoot 11-for-17 from beyond the arc. By comparison, the rest of Purdue’s roster shot a combined 4-for-30 from deep in the exhibitions. According to Nathan Baird of the Lafayette Courier-Journal, following the game Thompson noted that the team saw some things on film that they could possibly exploit with he and Mathias being the ones to take advantage.

“When we watched film, we knew this team was going to pack it in on the weak side to help take care of our 7-footers,” said Thompson, who built off of a seven-point, five-assist, four-steal performance in the first exhibition. “We knew if we moved on the weak side and set screens for each other and spotted up, we were going to get some looks.

“Our teammates did a really good job of feeding us the ball, and we were fortunate enough to knock some shots down. But really, it all goes to the presence of our bigs and them drawing all the attention and us feeding off of that.”

Obviously from a talent standpoint Carroll isn’t as formidable as the teams Purdue will see in regular season play, especially when they hit the conference portion of their slate. However exhibitions are helpful in allowing a team the opportunity to work on things against outside competition.

Sophomores Stephens and Bryson Scott and graduate transfer Jon Octeus will clearly be key guards for Purdue this season, but so will Thompson and Mathias as they’ll provide additional depth and production on the perimeter. And if they can carry their shooting into the regular season, Purdue’s big men will have more room to operate in the post.