Just over a month into Big Ten play, the Michigan men’s basketball team sits atop the conference with only one loss — an 18-point away defeat to Minnesota five days ago.
While the Wolverines and the likes of No. 4 Iowa and No. 10 Wisconsin have all had impressive starts to league play, arguably no team now has more momentum than Purdue. Winners of four straight games, the Boilermakers are rolling, most recently beating No. 15 Ohio State, 67-65, with a late-game 3-pointer from freshman guard Jaden Ivey.
While the Boilermakers are led by juniors — namely 6-foot-10 forward Trevion Williams and guards Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. — the emergence of freshmen like Ivey has been critical to their recent success.
“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Williams said. “We’re a very young team. Obviously it was huge for Jaden to make that shot in the last game. Guys are coming along. We’ve been getting in time and putting in work. It’s showing in the games.”
Heading into the first-and-only regular season meeting with Michigan, Purdue is not the same team it was when it surrendered an 18-point first-half lead in a loss to Miami in December and started 2-3 in the Big Ten.
“Going back to Miami, that was a smack in the face,” Williams said. “For us to have a half like that and then come out in the second half and kinda lose it, it was a smack in the face. We’ve been good at helping each other and trying to get better everyday so something like that doesn’t happen again.”
Averaging 15.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, Williams is the heart and soul of the Boilermakers’ offense and a familiar foe for the Wolverines. A season ago, he exploded for 36 points and 20 rebounds in a double-overtime loss in Ann Arbor.
“I just had a good night,” Williams said. “But I’m the type of guy, I don’t want to make it about me. That doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get the win. Obviously this time I just want to focus on finishing it off.”
Behind Williams on the depth chart is enormous freshman center Zach Edey, who measures out at 7-foot-4 and 285 pounds. While not the most polished offensive player, Edey’s presence on defense has presented a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs.
“It’s starting to slow down a lot, especially on defense,” Edey said. “I can read the defense more and know where I’m supposed to be before I’m supposed to be there.
“I’ve managed to keep my fouls down too. That was a big problem at the beginning of the year. I haven’t gotten in foul trouble (the) past couple of games. Jumping vertically, contesting shots, altering and blocking shots at the rim.”
Against Michigan, the two Boilermaker big men will face one of their toughest tests yet in freshman center Hunter Dickinson. The four-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week has not only shown an ability to score in a variety of ways but also to make plays for his teammates from the post.
While Williams, who played against Dickinson on the AAU circuit and during tryouts for the USA U-19 national team, knows containing Dickinson will be a challenge, he’s confident both he and Edey are up to the task.
“We’ve been preparing ourselves for this game,” Williams said. “We’ve all been watching a lot of film. Me and Zach have been in there watching film a couple times. They’re not going to surprise us. We just have to be ready to come out with a fight.”
Dickinson’s worst performance of the season came Saturday against the Golden Gophers’ lengthy frontline. Facing Minnesota’s double teams, he only scored nine points and committed five turnovers.
Using that game as a blueprint, Purdue hopes to recreate Dickinson’s struggles. Williams’s physicality and Edey’s size will be central to that effort.
“Just my size, my physicality and my length,” Edey said. “(Dickinson) hasn’t really seen anyone with my measurements yet. There’s no one in the country with my measurements. So I think I can cause him some problems on the defensive end.”
If the Boilermakers can slow down Dickinson, they have a good chance to keep their winning streak alive.
“I believe our group is very confident,” Williams said. “And the cat’s out of the bag — everybody can play and we know that and we gotta continue.”
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