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January 22, 2013

Small ball big again

A year ago around this time, Purdue changed its season with a switch to smaller, more skill-oriented lineups, a move that created mismatches and profoundly benefited the Boilermakers offensively.

The similarities between last year's team and this year's are minimal, as the complexion of the Purdue roster - both in names and skill sets - is very different.

But again, a move to more perimeter-oriented lineups has proven beneficial, helping Purdue to a three-game winning streak in which it hasn't necessarily scored more points than it had been, but has seemed to function a little smoother on offense.

And Purdue's in the midst of the finest run of defense it's played this season, though it should be noted the three teams it defeated are all struggling.

The past three games, freshman Rapheal Davis, a perimeter-oriented wing, has started as the Boilermakers' power forward-type, a role played last season mostly by then-junior D.J. Byrd.

"Some of the teams we've played lately have had that smaller 4 and Ray's done a good job stepping into that role," Byrd said. "He's only 6-3 or 6-4 but he's pretty strong down there and can play that position with big guys. He's shooting the ball well and can really get to the basket. The combination of those things is really helping our team out."

The single biggest difference between last year's situation and this one is that last season, Purdue was a team best built to generate offense from the perimeter, with a bevy of three-point shooters paired with penetrators like Lewis Jackson and Terone Johnson.

Now, Purdue's offense relies heavily on center A.J. Hammons, an interior scoring threat the Boilermakers look to often.

"It helps because it keeps people from double-teaming Big A.J. in the post," Davis said. "It opens up D.J.'s shots and the drive for me, (Ronnie Johnson) and Terone into the lane."

Space is critical for the 7-foot Hammons.

"If you can have Big A.J. one-on-one with another big guy," Byrd said, "most of the time that's going to be an advantage for us."

Purdue has had to rebound. It might be the single most important statistical category for a team that came into this season with exponentially more size than it had a year ago.

That's where things can get sticky with smaller lineups.

But Painter's move was a pragmatic one.

His bigger options at the power forward spot haven't been producing on the boards, so what was there to lose?

"I did it because of matchups, but also because I thought Rapheal Davis' effort was better than the other guys I was considering playing," Painter said. "He definitely needed to be rewarded for having a good attitude, working on his game, playing hard. He's making mistakes, too, but they're not hustle mistakes. He's doing a better job than those other guys of playing hard."

For Davis, it's paid off, and at least the past three games, its only effect on Purdue's rebounding has been a positive one.

The freshman has averaged 5.7 rebounds per game during the three-game winning streak, second to only Hammons during that span.

"I just go after the ball and try to play with a dog mentality and just expect every rebound to be mine," Davis said. "I just try not to allow myself to get blocked out and I try to just go get the ball.

"Coach Painter has been trying to teach me all year about following the flight of the ball. Before I would just try to run to the ball, but he'd say, 'You have to find the ball and figure out if it'll come off long or short.' Then you have to get your timing down."

At the offensive end, point guard Ronnie Johnson said Davis' perimeter game has helped soften help defense on Hammons.

And Davis, whose long-standing rep as a player has been his scoring, has produced.

Against West Virginia Saturday, he was 5-of-6 from the field in scoring 16 points. During the win streak, he's averaged better than 10 points per game and made 9-of-15 shots, including three of the five three-pointers he's attempted. He was 2-for-2 from deep against the Mountaineers following an impromptu 30-minute tutorial from Painter prior to the game.

"I feel like I've gotten a whole lot better through the season," Davis said.

Last season, small lineups created glaring mismatches Purdue could exploit, usually by making an opposing big man have to guard on the perimeter, the beneficiary frequently being Terone Johnson.

Never was that matchup advantage put to better use than in last year's game at Michigan, where the guard scored 22 in the win that might have sealed his team's place in the NCAA Tournament.

Now, with Purdue headed to Ann Arbor again to face the second-ranked Wolverines, it'll become known whether the Boilermakers' newest versions of these small lineups are going to have staying power.

Byrd was asked if the lineups had yet created obvious favorable matchups as last year's did.

"Not with the teams we've just played," Byrd said, "but I think it can in the future."

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