OMAHA, Neb. — Matt Painter knows the topic isn’t sexy. He knows that it’s liable to put folks to sleep, sometimes his very own players. But the coach of Purdue also knows that it often saves teams from misfortune this time of year.
The topic is defense, and he’s driving home its value harder than ever.
The No. 10 seed Boilermakers were in the building Friday night when No. 15 seed Norfolk State upset No. 2 seed Missouri, and one of the biggest reasons for one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA tournament was the Tigers’ inability to get stops.
“There are going to be two or three games where your shots don’t go in,” Painter said, “and it comes down to whether you can still grind it and win those games.”
Now, Purdue must face one of the best grinders in college basketball.
The Boilermakers meet second-seeded Kansas tonight in the third round of the Midwest Regional. Purdue advanced with a hard-fought win over Saint Mary’s, while the Jayhawks staved off an early threat from No. 15 seed Detroit on Friday.
Naturally, they did it with defense.
Kansas held the Horizon League champion to 32 percent shooting and a 3-for-17 night beyond the arc, even though starting guard Tyshawn Taylor — the linchpin on both ends of the floor — spent most of the second half dealing with cramps.
Taylor spent Saturday downing fluids and said he felt “fine,” which should make Painter and the Boilermakers feel anything but as they break down video.
“Any time you look at a championship-caliber team like Kansas, there’s going to be constants. They have good coaches and good players, sure, but they defend and rebound,” Painter said in an otherwise empty hallway outside the Purdue locker room.
“It’s their system,” Painter said. “They’re very good at hawking the basketball. They’re very good at that backline of defense when people do beat them off the bounce.”
Painter is referring to the imposing inside presence of 6-foot-8 forward Thomas Robinson, one of the leading candidates for national player of the year, and 7-footer Jeff Withey, who emerged this season as the best defender in the Big 12.
Withey said the Jayhawks stress defense every practice, perhaps more than most teams, and that’s why Kansas ranks among the best statistically every year.
“Defense is the foundation,” he said. “If you have a great defense, and you stop somebody from scoring, you get the chance to come back and play better offensively.”
Withey thinks that’s a big reason for all the early bracket busting.
“With all the upsets sand stuff going on, the smaller schools are just playing better defense,” he said, “and that means a lot this time of year.”
Historically speaking, there may be some truth to that.
The previous nine NCAA champions have all been ranked in the top 20 in defensive rating, which measures the amount of points a team allows per 100 possessions.
When the Jayhawks won the 2008 title, they were ranked first. They were fifth going into this weekend’s games, behind only fellow NCAA tournament participants Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Louisville.
Purdue is ranked 87th, allowing nearly 10 points more per 100 possessions.
Even the scores of the past four national championship games prove the value of defense. Connecticut beat Butler 53-41 last season, and Duke knocked off the Bulldogs 61-59 the previous year. Four years ago, the Jayhawks played to a 65-65 deadlock with Memphis after regulation, ultimately winning 75-68 in overtime.
“Defense wins games. That’s always been the case and it’s going to stay that way,” Robinson said. “That’s why we put so much emphasis on it.”
Detroit was the seventh team that Kansas has held to 50 points or fewer this season, and that numbers rises to 16 that have failed to reach 60. The Jayhawks are allowing teams to shoot just 38.1 percent from the field, fifth-best nationally.
“Their guards understand what they have on the inside, and it allows them to be a little more aggressive on the perimeter,” said Purdue guard Lewis Jackson. “If you’re not paying attention, Robinson and Withey are getting blocks and altering shots.
“They understand how to play defensively as a team.”
The trick for Purdue is simply figuring out a way to score.
Teams that have beaten the Jayhawks this season have done so by shooting over top and scoring in transition, before they have time to set up defensively. They’re also able to get Robinson and Withey in foul trouble, negating their inside presence.
That was the recipe for Davidson’s 80-74 upset in December.
It’s recipe that Purdue plans to follow.
“Michigan State and Ohio State are very good comparisons to this team when you look at their size,” Purdue star Robbie Hummel said. “They’re big bodies, they’re good players, and you throw in their guard play there’s a reason they’re a 2 seed.”