John Beilein believes Purdue might be the best Big Ten team Michigan has faced.
No, not this season. The best ever.
Beilein began Wednesday’s press conference by saying as much, comparing the third-ranked Boilermakers to great teams of the past.
“I’ve been here long enough to tell you there’s some pretty good teams in this league we’ve seen,” Beilein said. “Look at the great Wisconsin teams, the terrific Purdue teams from earlier in my career that were so good. Indiana, ourselves had games where there were just incredibly talented, these guys are still playing in the league. Purdue has everything that all those teams had. And maybe more than any of those teams, they have incredible experience. … I haven’t seen anything like this.”
It’s high praise, but with the way Purdue has been playing recently, it’s easy to see where Beilein is coming from.
The Boilermakers (8-0 Big Ten, 19-2 overall) have won three straight games by at least 23 points, rising to the No. 2 spot in the KenPom rankings along the way.
They’re the same team the Wolverines (6-3, 17-5) lost to by a point two weeks ago in Ann Arbor. They still impose their will on the inside with 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas and his backup, 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms. They still threaten teams with their outside shooting — they made 20 3-pointers in their win over Iowa. And they still play elite defense both on and off the ball.
Michigan was able to counter all of that to make the first game close.
If anything, though, the first matchup has propelled Purdue to new heights, as its last three outcomes may indicate.
Needless to say, the Wolverines have their work cut out for them.
“It presents a great challenge for us — a really good opportunity,” said fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson. “Like (Beilein) said, they’re a really tough team to beat, especially at their place. But we’re excited for the opportunity for sure.”
Perhaps the biggest thing the game against the Boilermakers did was give the blueprint on how to guard the Wolverines. Purdue switched on every ball screen in that matchup, refusing to allow junior forward Moritz Wagner to get open for his patented pick-and-pop 3-pointer.
Since that game, Nebraska guarded Michigan the same way, quite successfully. It’s a problem that Beilein’s teams have faced before, but even he admits that it’s been an easier conundrum to solve in the past.
On Wednesday, he cited how former guard Trey Burke was able to break those defenses by simply shooting over them.
This year’s team has tried a variety of solutions, such as attempting to feed Wagner on the post and drive past bigger defenders with guards. Against the Cornhuskers — and the Boilermakers, to an extent — that strategy didn’t work.
But in the end, Beilein says, there’s only so much gameplanning the coaches can do. At some point, the players have to be the ones to beat the defense.
“It’s not only a schematic thing,” Beilein said. “It is a thing, ‘Alright, can you actually score against somebody doing this? Can you actually score — guard score on a big, and a big score on a small? Can you make that entry pass in there?’ So we’ve tried to think of everything, and I know I grow as a coach every day of what we can do. But I don’t feel, like, ‘I can’t wait until people switch on us right now, because we’ve got the answers.’ We’re still solving that.”
In the end, Thursday’s game will be a litmus test for the offense against a particular defensive scheme, sure, but it will also mean more than that.
With the relative lack of depth in the Big Ten, this game will be one of the Wolverines’ final chances to prove themselves against an elite team. They don’t play Michigan State again, and their one remaining game against a ranked team is at home against No. 13 Ohio State.
It’s not like Michigan is in need of a resume boost with the successes they’ve had so far this season, but Thursday’s game is one of the last regular season opportunities for the Wolverines to prove they can hang with the upper echelon of college basketball.
It’s one of the final chances for Michigan to prove it belongs.