College basketball hasn’t seen a player like Isaac Haas in a decade. The man is not only an absolute unit, standing 7-foot-2 and 290 pounds, but also has great touch and can spot open teammates when he draws double-teams. Not since Roy Hibbert played at Georgetown in 2007-08 has there been a player on a nationally relevant team as relentless and imposing on the low block, which is why it’s tough to blame Purdue coach Matt Painter for what transpired in East Lansing on Saturday.
Painter allowed Haas to shoot a career-high 22 times against the fourth-ranked Spartans; he basically carried the offense for the entire second half and finished with 25 of the Boilermakers’ 65 points. Michigan State’s best efforts at stopping Haas came when the rotating cast of Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling, and Kenny Goins essentially tried to sumo wrestle him away from the paint. These attempts regularly failed, though, as Haas kept catching the ball where he wanted before throwing an unblockable jump hook through the basket.
The catch here, of course, is that despite Haas delivering what felt like a completely dominant performance, Purdue still lost 68-65. That’s because Michigan State pulled a rope-a-dope with the Boilermakers by more or less encouraging Haas to do whatever he wanted all game. Rather than throw a double-team at Haas in an effort to slow his production, Spartans coach Tom Izzo elected to let his guys take Haas one-on-one all night so as to not give Purdue’s bevy of 3-point shooters any clean looks. This strategy not only worked in the sense that it limited the Boilermakers to just 6-for-19 shooting from the 3-point line (including 0-for-5 from deep in the second half), it also turned a typically balanced Purdue offense one dimensional, as nearly every possession featured four Boilers standing straight-legged on the perimeter as they watched Haas try to beat his defender one-on-one.
The most fascinating thing about all of this was that both Izzo and Painter got exactly what they wanted out of Purdue’s offensive possessions. Izzo was willing to concede points to Haas because he was counting on him to run out of gas; the big man averages only about 23 minutes per game, so this represented a much larger workload than he is accustomed to carrying. Painter knew this. He knew what Izzo was trying to do, and knew that in an ideal world Purdue would have gotten scoring from all of its primary contributors (Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, etc.). He also knew that he had a once-in-a-decade player on his roster who could get the ball anywhere he wanted, at any point in the shot clock, for practically the whole game. Why would any coach not take advantage of that? The ultimate purpose of running offense is to create high-percentage shots; Haas is shooting 60.9 percent from the field. Why should a team bother to work its ass off by setting screens, making cuts, and moving the ball around when it could consistently dump it down low and let the big dog eat?
Ultimately, the tactics surrounding Haas were a virtual stalemate. Although he missed his final shot with less than a minute to play and the game tied at 65, it would be unfair to say that Haas hit the proverbial wall. The truth is that both teams were in great position to win, and Michigan State only came out on top because of Miles Bridges’s heroics. The Spartans improved to 24-3 on the season, moved into a tie with Purdue for second place in the Big Ten standings (12-2 in conference play), and have a decent shot at being ranked no. 1 in America when the new AP poll drops on Monday. It’s infuriating to see Izzo continue to play Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. out of position considering that Jackson is the best interior defender in the league and yet somehow didn’t guard Haas for a single second on Saturday. But at this point it’s clear that Izzo has no intention of mixing things up, so there’s no use in complaining about what Michigan State isn’t, especially given that every team in college basketball looks significantly flawed.
One of those flawed teams is Purdue, which has now dropped two in a row after rattling off a 19-game winning streak from late November through last Wednesday. Both losses came in down-to-the-wire games against very good opponents (Michigan State and Ohio State), so I’m not going to pretend like Purdue fans should start reaching for the panic buttons they carry around in their pockets at all times. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Haas’s role in the offense moving forward. Prior to the Boilers’ 92-88 win over Michigan on January 25, Haas had registered double-digit shot attempts in just four of 21 games. In the six games since, he’s attempted 10 or more shots on five separate occasions. Purdue’s average margin of victory when Haas shoots 10-plus times is 4.6 points; when he attempts fewer than 10 shots, the Boilers have won by an average margin of 25.
Of course, it’s important to take these numbers with a grain of salt. The most likely explanation for this discrepancy is that Purdue is relying on Haas because these games are close, not the other way around. But I also don’t think the data should be dismissed, since anyone who has followed Purdue this season will tell you that the Boilers offense often grinds to a halt when it takes the form of four players watching Haas make post moves. And that has happened with increasing frequency over the past three weeks.
What Painter decides to do about this situation moving forward will be one of the most fascinating college basketball coaching decisions of this month. In the second half of Wednesday’s 64-63 loss to Ohio State and throughout the full Michigan State game, Purdue’s opponents took similar approaches: The Buckeyes and Spartans made concentrated efforts to shut down Haas’s supporting cast and just threw a revolving door of expendable, physical defenders at him. The move worked both times, so it’s safe to assume that the Boilers will see other teams deploy this strategy for the rest of the season.
But is that necessarily a bad thing for Purdue? Should Painter be concerned that his 7-foot-2 center who shoots better than 60 percent from the field is routinely catching the ball 5 feet from the basket without facing double-teams? In the words of the great philosopher Dan Dakich, “Basketball is not a democracy.” There’s nothing in the coaching handbook that mandates all players must get an even number of touches, so maybe the smart move for Painter is to do nothing, write the past week off as a fluke, and try to ride Haas to the promised land. After all, while it could be argued that structuring the offense around Haas could mess up the rhythm of Purdue’s other players and cause those guys to be ineffective when called upon (given that Carsen Edwards was the only other Boilermakers player who looked like he had a pulse the past two games, this argument carries water), it should also be noted that Purdue is merely two bounces away from finding itself amid a totally different narrative. If Bridges had missed his 3-pointer and Keita Bates-Diop hadn’t corralled a rebound to hoist up a last-second putback, this article could have featured a “Can anyone stop the Boilers?” angle instead of one that addresses Purdue’s perceived problems.
Alas, those bounces did not go Purdue’s way. And now, as Michigan State’s stock continues to rise, the Boilermakers have hit their first speed bump of 2018. They’ve found themselves on the wrong end of the two biggest games in the Big Ten this season, and outside of two close calls against a solid but unspectacular Michigan team, they haven’t beaten an NCAA tournament team since downing Butler in mid-December. With March fast approaching and Purdue trying to deal with an offensive identity crisis and a suddenly suspect defense, the chances of the program getting to its first Final Four since 1980 admittedly don’t look great. That’s why I feel it’s important to remind Purdue fans that the Boilers are still 23-4, in the thick of the hunt for a Big Ten title, and likely to get a no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It might not feel like it right now, but I swear that there is no need to panic.
Not yet anyway.