Purdue focuses on the little things and it has led to big things

9:04 AM ET

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The signature image of Purdue’s season, especially its record-setting 19-game winning streak, would be center Isaac Haas holding the ball, two defenders draped over his gargantuan frame.

The double-team, if executed properly, causes panic and poor choices: a turnover or a foul or a timeout spent too soon. But when opponents assign an extra defender to the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Haas, Purdue usually succeeds.

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  • “We feel like you’re creating offense for us when you double-team,” Purdue coach Matt Painter told ESPN this week. “We’re excited about you double-teaming us, to be frank. It makes our job easier.”

    A lot goes into a 19-game winning streak, the longest in Purdue history, the longest in the nation, and matching the 10th-longest in Big Ten history. There have been grinder games and shootouts, 3-point spectacles and clutch free throw shooting displays. The third-ranked Boilermakers have blitzed opponents and won when they’re off. They’ve had some luck, essential for just the third 12-0 Big Ten start in more than 40 years.

    But college basketball’s hottest team got this way because of how it responds when the heat is cranked up. Double-team Haas, and he finds an open teammate. Dent a comfortable Boilers lead in the closing minutes, and they finish at the line. Match baskets with them until you miss and they don’t (just ask Michigan).

    The Boilers haven’t changed their priorities. They still want defense to live at Mackey Arena, as the sign in the student section reads. They still play hard, as the sign above the arena tunnel commands players to do. But this season, they’re also built on an offense that, even under pressure, is rarely slowed. During the streak, Purdue is shooting just a hair below 50 percent from the field, making 42.7 percent of its 3-point attempts with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.53.

    “You’re wired as a coach to get stops late in the game, and hopefully your defense can create a little offense,” Painter said. “The last five minutes of the game hasn’t been, ‘OK, we’re going to stop you.’ We’ve more had to outscore teams late in games.”

    The Boilers are positioned to repeat as Big Ten champions and possibly make a deep NCAA tournament run under Painter, who hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 despite six (soon to be seven) seasons of 25 or more wins. Purdue aims to make it 20 straight Wednesday night against No. 14 Ohio State, before visiting No. 4 Michigan State on Saturday night.

    “You can’t get away from the fact that everybody’s telling you that it’s huge and something special,” Haas said of the streak, “but we believe we’re a special team, so special things happen to special teams.”

    Purdue had no idea something special was coming when its airplane touched down on U.S. soil in late November after the Battle 4 Atlantis event. The Boilers weren’t better in the Bahamas, losing to unranked Tennessee and Western Kentucky before hammering then-No. 2 Arizona by 25, the second-most lopsided win over a ranked opponent in team history.

    Painter blames himself for the two losses. Purdue played pop-a-shot rather than being patient, didn’t handle the ball (31 turnovers combined) and lacked mental toughness.

    “Just played way too cool,” Painter said.

    The Arizona win, while impressive, didn’t put Painter at ease. His team needed to handle adversity. Four days later, Louisville provided it, as Purdue missed two-thirds of its shots and made just five 3-pointers in 23 attempts. The Boilers won by holding Louisville to 31.7 percent shooting, forcing 14 turnovers and making 23 free throws.

    It was the type of win Purdue is known for, but not one that would typify the 2017-18 Boilers, or their streak. Painter counts the next two games — five-point wins over Maryland and Northwestern — as part of a season-defining, “grind-it-out” springboard, but Purdue hasn’t approached its shooting futility from the Louisville slog. In the past 17 contests, the Boilers are shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from 3-point distance. Their low marks for shooting and scoring: 44.3 percent against Nebraska and 70 points at Michigan.

    Purdue’s second meeting with Michigan illustrated its offensive strides. The Wolverines shot 60 percent from the field and 56.5 percent from 3, averaging 1.35 points per possession. Purdue won 92-88 thanks to 62 percent shooting, 19 made free throws and 1.42 points per possession.

    “That was a big confidence boost for our team, just because there was frustration involved,” Painter said. “We could not stop Michigan, but yet they couldn’t stop us.”

    A proficient offense isn’t new — Purdue averaged a league-best 77.7 points in Big Ten games last season — but it has been refined. Wooden Award finalist Caleb Swanigan is gone, but all five Boilers starters shoot at least 47 percent from the floor and better than 77 percent from the line. When Haas gets the ball in the post, he either draws a solo defender — “Usually, it’s a pretty good night,” he says, smiling — or two defenders, which means a high-percentage shooter is left unattended.

    “A lot of times, it’s Vince [Edwards], a lot of times, it’s P.J. [Thompson],” Haas said. “They feel like they can double off the smallest guy. I can whip it all the way across, or I’ll just throw it to the next open guy and they’ll just rotate the ball easily and get an open shot in the corner.

    “It’s all just a matter of getting that hockey assist.”

    Haas, who boasts 20 traditional assists but has triggered many more buckets with his passes out of double-teams, turned to Purdue sports information chief Chris Forman.

    “Yo, Chris,” he said, “I may have to get you to start keeping track of my hockey assists.”

    Haas and the Boilers didn’t used to handle double-teams so well. Years of practice against Swanigan, A.J. Hammons and now Matt Haarms improved the senior’s comfort and decisions. The Boilers devote 10 minutes of every practice to double-teams, so when they come in games, they’re still dictating rather than reacting.

    “We play strategically in different sets to make not necessarily their double-team different, but their rotations different, and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Painter said. “They can do whatever they want, but they can’t tell us where we can put our guys. Even though we have a lot of weapons, our right of first refusal when it gets into the half court is: Allow Isaac to touch it.”

    When Haas is doubled, his options can include five teammates — Thompson (49 percent), Dakota Mathias (46.9 percent), Vincent Edwards (41.5 percent), Ryan Cline (40 percent) and Carsen Edwards (39.6 percent) — who make 3s at above-average rates. In the past, Purdue had one or two weaker shooters who could be left alone. Not anymore.

    “In today’s game, people are more worried about giving up 3s than 2s, and that’s where some of my easy buckets come in because I’m just sitting under the rim,” Vincent Edwards said. “Then when teams figure that out and they come down low, you’ve got a 45 to 49 percent 3-point shooter sitting out at the arc.”

    Painter has seen Vincent Edwards diversify his game during the streak and fellow Wooden Award candidate Carsen Edwards improve his assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7 in Big Ten play) while maintaining dangerous dribble-drive ability. Mathias is one of the nation’s most efficient shooters and passers. Thompson orchestrates Purdue’s offensive sets and hits 3s when needed. Haarms, Cline and recently Nojel Eastern provide a bench boost.

    The streak has included nine wins by 25 points or more, but also nine by single digits, including each of the past four.

    “We’ve been in a lot of possession-type games where we’ve won in different ways,” Painter said. “That’s the thing as a coach: You don’t want to be in them, but after you survive them, it makes you stronger.”

    The winning streak matters less than what Purdue extracts from it. The Boilers could enter the NCAA tournament on a 28-game roll, or they could stumble between now and then. Purdue’s run includes only three wins over currently ranked opponents (Arizona and Michigan twice). The Big Ten lacks depth and Purdue has yet to face the league’s top two teams. The Boilers know their defense must tighten up, starting this week.

    Ultimately, they must start a new streak in March, when the hottest teams truly rise. Four wins would equal the program’s first Final Four appearance since 1980; six would equal Purdue’s first NCAA tournament title.

    “We want to enjoy [the streak], but our season’s not over yet,” Vincent Edwards said. “It’s like a blessing and a curse. It sucks because it’s your senior year and you want to be able to soak everything in. If we’re in San Antonio, Texas, and we’re on the winning end, then I’ll soak everything in.”