Nobody picked Purdue as the Big Ten favorite during the preseason, but the polls and the metrics now believe the Boilermakers are the team to beat as they prepare to face Minnesota in Sunday's conference opener in West Lafayette, Ind.
Purdue (7-0) zoomed from unranked to No. 5 in the nation by thrashing West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke in a 68-hour span to capture the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Ore. Then, after getting home from Portland at 5 a.m. Monday and getting into the Sunshine State at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Boilermakers still had enough to win by 10 points at Florida State despite a so-so showing.
"We've got to guard better," said Purdue coach Matt Painter. "We've got to start a game better."
Really, though, what Purdue has got to do is keep 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey healthy because he has emerged as a primary National Player of the Year candidate. Through Thursday's games, the skilled Canadian ranked sixth nationally in scoring (22.1 points per game) and tied for fourth in rebounding (11.4 per game) while shooting 64.1 percent from the field and swatting 2.1 shots per game.
He has recorded at least 20 points in six straight games
Opponents have tried to play him honest to stay close to Purdue's shooters, but that hasn't worked. They've tried to swarm him, but that hasn't worked. Edey almost always finds a way to get to his spot in the post and turn over his left shoulder so he can shoot his deadly right-handed jump hook.
Edey has been so good, it's actually doing harm to redshirt freshman Trey Kaufman-Renn's development. He was a Top 50 recruit, but has been averaging just 11.9 minutes because Edey has been so efficient and durable that Painter has few reasons to remove him.
"We've got to get Trey Kaufman going because he's a good player, but it's hard because Zach causes so many matchup issues for (opponents) that it's hard to keep him out of the game," Painter said. "Even when he doesn't score, he gives people more place to play because they have to give that kind of attention to him."
Second-year Minnesota coach Ben Johnson hopes to have such problems one day. For now, the Gophers (4-3) are trying to inch their way up the Big Ten ladder with four freshmen seeing significant playing time.
Minnesota also is trying to get forward Jamison Battle, a preseason All-Big Ten pick, back into the flow after he missed the first four games after minor foot surgery. In three games since returning to the floor, Battle has made just 26.2 percent of his shots -- and 23.1 percent on 3s -- while averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
The Gophers hope Battle and North Carolina transfer Dawson Garcia (14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds) can develop into a combination like so many other Big Ten teams have. But in Monday's loss at Virginia Tech, they combined for 11 points and three rebounds in 62 minutes -- though Johnson pointed out that Garcia was battling through the flu.
"We have to look at it and find a way to get those guys some better looks and easier looks," Johnson said. "We will do that."
--Field Level Media