Some eight weeks before the NCAA Tournament bracket was announced, Bill Self was worried about Purdue.
After watching one of the Boilermakers’ games, the Kansas coach envisioned a potential matchup problem if the two teams happened to meet in March.
“I think as a coach you look at it and say, ‘OK, what teams out there are a little bit different that could potentially be a contrasting style that you could match up with?’” Self said. “And Purdue was the first one that came to mind.”
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It’s not difficult to figure out what Self saw.
Statistically, KU’s defense has struggled with two types of teams in particular: those with dominant low-post scorers and ones who shoot well from the perimeter.
Purdue happens to have both.
Caleb Swanigan is a national player of the year candidate who has done a majority of his scoring inside. Landen Lucas is KU’s best defender there, yet the Jayhawks are uncharacteristically thin behind him when it comes to interior defenders.
So the question becomes this: Does KU double-team Swanigan?
Self didn’t give a definitive answer Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it,” Self said. “So without giving away anything, I think that a lot of how we guard will depend on who is in the game.”
KU had some success double-teaming Baylor’s Johnathan Motley in two victories earlier this season. The tactic also could potentially help Lucas stay out of foul trouble.
Purdue coach Matt Painter, for his part, said he believed KU would double-team Swanigan with its second big man, saying that’s what the Jayhawks have done against other Big 12 teams in similar situations.
If KU does double, though, it could exacerbate another issue: This Purdue team can shoot it from deep.
The Boilermakers rank sixth nationally in three-point percentage, with five rotation players making better than 40 percent of their outside attempts. With Swanigan improving his passing — he’s third on his team in assists — any double-team could potentially lead to bigger problems if KU is slow to rotate.
According to Synergy Sports Technology’s logs, Purdue has scored 1.21 points per possessions on spot-ups this season compared to 0.96 on post-ups. In other words, giving Swanigan too much attention inside can often lead to a worse defensive result.
“We’ve got to do some things to keep them off the (three-point) line. We do,” Self said. “Because if you worry just about taking away the low post and packing it in so much, then that obviously opens up stuff they want to do just as much as throw it in. And that’s shoot the open threes.”
Purdue is accustomed to this give and take. Guard P.J. Thompson says Big Ten opponents have tried nearly everything to stop Swanigan.
“We see guys go single coverage, double coverage, throw the kitchen sink at him, or dig in the post,” Thompson said. “We’ve pretty much seen it all.”
And Purdue, Thompson says, is willing to adjust accordingly.
“Our big men trust us shooters on the outside,” Thompson said. “If (big men) get a double-team, they’re taught to pass it. They do, then it’s up to us to knock it down.”
This formula — Swanigan surrounded by four shooters — actually wasn’t Purdue’s primary lineup throughout the entire season. Painter switched his starting lineup in early January, moving Vincent Edwards, a 43-percent three-point shooter, into the starting lineup in place of 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas.
“It takes one of our main guys and it brings him off the bench,” Painter said. “That’s tough.”
The change still has created a spread-out offense that is tough to defend, presenting problems Self first saw more than two months ago.
“They’re so well-coached, well-drilled and certainly have terrific players,” Self said. “It will be a great challenge for our team, but one that we’re certainly looking forward to.”