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Northwestern vs. Purdue: What To Watch

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Two consecutive losses following the biggest win of Northwestern’s season, a seven-point home upset of Minnesota, brings the Wildcats to the halfpoint of their Big Ten schedule. Starting with Saturday’s visit from Purdue, the remaining nine conference games include trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State, a home date with Wisconsin and a return trip to Mackey Arena. Plowing through that gauntlet will not be easy. Saturday’s game is one of, if not the most favorable matchup left on offer. Put two and two together, and you almost feel like this is something of a must win for the Wildcats.

Three Players To Watch

Terone Johnson (junior, guard) 

When Robbie Hummel, Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith graduated in the offseason following a gut-wrenching NCAA Tournament loss to eventual national finalist Kansas, Purdue braced itself for a rare rebuilding year. Matt Painter had a solid recruiting class down the pipe, but at least initially, the Boilermakers would struggle to preserve Painter’s high-level consistency in the post-Hummel era.

The turnover opened up more minutes and touches for guys like Johnson: He leads the Boilermakers in usage rate (24.5) and percentage of team shots (27.5). Johnson’s isn’t shooting the ball quite as efficiently as a team’s primary offensive option should – his 98.2 offensive rating and 43.7 effective field goal percentage aren’t particularly flashy – but if he’s on the floor (and he averages a team high 74.5 percent of minutes played), Johnson’s going to get a fair amount of looks.

A.J. Hammons (freshman, center)

Here’s how you know Purdue’s Big Ten mediocrity to date (the Boilermakers are 11-10, 4-4 in conference play, and a long shot to reach the NCAA Tournament) is a temporary state of hoops existence: freshman Hammons is already shaping up to be one of the best pure centers in the conference. The Boilermakers beat out Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota to land his services, and if you watched Purdue’s 37-point home loss to the Hoosiers Wednesday night, it’s no secret why his courtship was so heated.

In just his first season on campus, Hammons may already be Purdue’s best player – for players with using at least 24 percent of available possessions, he’s posting team-high marks in offensive rating (103.9), effective field goal percentage (51.7), true shooting percentage (54.3) and both offensive (11.1) and defensive (17.4) rebounding percentage. Those numbers paint Hammons’ effectiveness in vague analytical terms; for a more visual look on the freshman center’s immense talent, just watch this video.

D.J. Byrd (senior, forward)

There’s something weird about seeing Byrd on a basketball court. It’s not that he isn’t talented or skilled enough, per se, or that he doesn’t take to Matt Painter’s defense-first philosophy. In fact, he quite literally embodies the Big Ten ideal of tough, hard-nosed basketball. It’s just that Byrd pretty clearly comes off looking like a taller fullback, or a tight end – position aside, the dude looks like he belongs on a football field.

Don’t let his appearance fool you; Byrd can really shoot. To date he leads the Boilermakers in three-point attempts with 133, of which he’s made 48, good for a 0.361 percentage from beyond the arc. By comparison, Byrd has attempted just 48 two-point field goals. He’s the most visible holdover from the Hummel era, and if he gets an opportunity Saturday, you can bet Byrd won’t hesitate to let loose from behind the three-point line.

Key Matchup: Alex Olah vs. A.J. Hammons

There’s an excellent visually detailed piece from our own Kevin Trahan that demands your attention on Olah’s offensive progression, and what he needs to do to attack Purdue’s excellent defense, which, despite some regression in conference play, has allowed opponents to score just 0.92 points per trip this season. The Boilermakers defense really excels at contesting and challenging shots inside the arc. That’s where Olah operates, and where Hammons will match him up. Throwing the ball to Olah in the low-post and getting two points out of the transaction opens up space on the perimeter. Not only will Hammons be more reluctant leaving Olah to provide backside help defense, but Purdue’s defense – while accounting for the possibility of an effective back-to-the-basket scorer – will  be less quick to get effective close outs and challenge Northwestern’s three-point shots.

Working a reliable inside-out attack, and not getting forced into a one-dimensional offensive system, is the key to breaking down one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenses. Servicing Olah with high-percentage low-post looks, provided he can establish prime post positioning, is a good place to start.