Last year, Purdue and Gonzaga squared up in the semi-finals of an early season tournament with Gonzaga carrying the label as one of the best teams in the country and Purdue was a young, up and coming squad without much national acclaim.
Despite Drew Timme, Purdue announced itself to the country against Gonzaga late at night in Portland, Oregon on its way to beating Gonzaga 84-66 as an unranked Big Ten team that was way ahead of schedule.
Gone is Drew Timme, but Mark Few’s Bulldogs still hold as the #12 team in the nation after starting the season 2-0. Gonzaga is part of six teams that are in the Top 25 going into the Maui Invitational, including the top two teams in the country.
Of course, for Purdue, this season’s roster doesn’t look a whole bunch different than last year, but the ranking next to them sure is, as Purdue lands in Honolulu to play as the #2 team in the country with a potential 1-2 showdown waiting in the Championship game if Purdue and Kansas both win their first two games.
Purdue returned Zach Edey and looks to make another splash early in the non-conference. Purdue hasn’t lost a game in the non-conference going back three seasons.
Gonzaga is now without Drew Timme, but is stocked with transfer talent, a freshman big, and will be looking to avenge last year’s upset with one of its own.
It’s gonna be a fun tip-off start for Purdue in Honolulu where the Maui Invitational was forced to move this year after the horrible fires on the island of Maui.
New to Zags
Gonzaga might be better matched this year defensively to take on Zach Edey than last year’s squad that had no answer for him. Of course, some of this is just talk. There’s no answer for Edey, but Graham Ike, a transfer out of Wyoming, was a defensive force for Gonzaga in its first two games and moves well for a big man. At 6-9 240 lbs, he has a decent body inside and adds some athleticism to both ends. He finished well in his first two games.
Ryan Nembhard has also joined the Zags this year after playing two seasons at Creighton where he shot the ball well and he shot it a lot. Nembhard is a crafty scorer, but a better playmaker. The all-around point guard averaged 12.1 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.0 rebounds a game for Creighton last year while playing 34 minutes a game. He also shot the three at a +35% clip. He played every minute of the Zags first game of the season against Yale where he had 16 points, 7 assists, and 4 defensive rebounds to just 1 turnover.
Purdue isn’t without its newcomers this season, with Lance Jones taking over the starting spot alongside Braden Smith and Fletcher Layer in the backcourt. Camden Heide and Myles Colvin are two freshman seeing minutes for Painter early in the season and project to have roles throughout the season.
Purdue edges Gonzaga with continuity.
What Matt Painter has to say about Gonzaga’s offense:
“High powered offense. Lot of weapons. Lot of different ways they can beat you. When somebody is that good offensively, trying to take everything away probably isn’t the smartest thing in the world. Also not letting them steal baskets. They’ve gotten really good at getting some second chance opportunities. Great combination of skill, speed, playmakers.”
Gonzaga has not played an opponent the caliber of Purdue’s win against Xavier. The Zags opened the season with a contest against Yale, and won 86-71.
What’s evident early with Mark Few’s young team, is he doesn’t have a ton of players he trusts yet. He played seven players with Ryan Nembhard playing the entire 40 minutes and his back court mate, Nolan Hickman, playing 39 points.
Gonzaga didn’t block a shot against Yale, something to look out for as Purdue’s length inside and on the wing, is much improved from last year including the ability for both Braden Smith and Lance Jones to attack the basket.
Purdue is one of the nation’s deepest teams with Painter struggling to cut down his rotation this early in the season. At the moment, Painter is giving 10 guys regular minutes.
Purdue’s guys have also been test, going on the road to face Arkansas in a hostile sold out environment, and hosting Xavier at Mackey Arena last Monday.
Big Man Void
What will Gonzaga look like this year? If early indications are to be trusted, Gonzaga will be playing even faster, looking to get into transition, and using its size on the wings to get to the hoop. But its big men are unproven.
Braden Huff has been brilliant in his first two games, averaging 21 points, 7.5 rebounds, and making 60% of his three-point attempts. He’s done that while only playing 17 minutes a game. He’s one of the best freshman in the country, but Purdue has a collection of defenders at the four to challenge him, all with more experience, and Huff has yet to be challenged at the other end of the floor.
Ike is a transfer that relies on hook shots and scoring inside off put backs. He’s not a huge leaper and doesn’t have a refined scoring game. He’s bullied his way to 18 a game in his first two showings with Gonzaga, but how does that translate when playing across from Zach Edey?
As it will against every team this season, Edge Purdue.
What Fletcher Layer had to say about the mindset Purdue is going into the Maui Invitational with:
“I think it’s pretty good for us that a lot of people think that we’re kind of middle of the pack or lower than we think we should be. I think us losing last year kinda has people ranking us in the top five when I think we’re the #1 team in the country. But ultimately we’ve gotta go out and prove that. We’ve gotta prove that we’re better than we were at the end of last season and I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve gone into practice everyday with that mindset so we still have to get better.”
— Fletcher Layer
Gonzaga will need fifth year senior Anton Watson to have an out of body game for the Bulldogs if Purdue is going to get challenged in its opening game at the Maui Invitational.
The Zags guards are going to be tasked with playing nearly the entire game without wearing down guarding a much more dynamic back court this time round with Braden Smith evolving his game and Lance Jones adding much needed shot making and punch off the dribble.
Watson is a unicorn on most courts, 6-8, with good size and a lot of athleticism. He’s scoring and shooting the ball well to start the season but was a 33% shooter from three last year while averaging just over 11 points a game. He’s a wing that can play up or down, something the Zags haven’t really shown the ability to move around with just a seven man rotation.
Watson is a great rebounder and sparks the Zags offense in transition. It will need a bunch of that to keep up with Purdue’s half-court efficiency. Purdue has struggled on the boards in its first two games to its standards, but can Watson get to enough lose balls, get into transition against Purdue, and get easy points before Purdue’s defense and bigs get set? He’ll also need to make shots.
Purdue has the ability to put bigs or wings on Watson, and look for Ethan Morton to come off the bench first and perhaps quicker than normal if Watson gets off to a good start. Watson missed the game against Purdue last season and if the Zags look better matched to Purdue’s length, he should be a big reason why.
But Purdue looks too formidable and deep right now, capable of playing fast and grinding out opponents. Purdue has also already been punched in the mouth this season and responded. Gonzaga is a fast, good team, that runs beautiful offense and will give Purdue a game, but they don’t have the horses to edge this one out.
Prediction: Purdue edges Gonzaga, 79-68.
Final quote from Fletcher Layer that sums up the week perfectly:
“Also being in Hawaii is much better than being in West Lafayette.”
— Fletcher Layer