Breakdown: Purdue's loss to No. 7 Michigan
Sasha Stefanovic is a crucial, crucial piece of Purdue's puzzle, the sort of piece that when removed can render the whole unrecognizable.
That may be extreme for a team that has struggled at times offensively regardless, but without Stefanovic — lost to a positive COVID-19 test — the Boilermakers' foundation sure appeared wobbly in a 70-53 loss in Mackey Arena to seventh-ranked Michigan.
The Wolverines are a borderline elite team in the first place, so Stefanovic's presence may very well have done little to change the ultimate outcome.
However, the fingerprints of the junior's absence are all over the Boilermakers' 30.8-percent shooting and paltry output of just 53 points.
"It's really, really hard to do," guard Brandon Newman said of playing without Stefanovic. "... We missed him. There was a void there."
Coach Matt Painter said Stefanovic was cleared for the Ohio State game Tuesday night after passing all necessary testing, but woke up the following morning with symptoms. Though he tested negative twice Wednesday, per Painter, he isolated, then tested positive the following day, and the positive test was later confirmed. (Since he'd been isolated since symptoms presented themselves, no other Boilermakers were caught up in contact tracing, and both Ohio State and Michigan were notified. Michigan decided to play the game on the condition of Purdue's other players passing PCR tests.)
Purdue practiced twice in advance of its biggest game of the season without one of its most influential offensive players.
"We don't have his presence," said freshman Jaden Ivey, who moved into the starting five. "He's been here three years and we were missing a leader tonight, which is tough. We needed his threes tonight.
"But we can't let Sasha being out control what we have going on on the court. We just didn't bring it tonight."
Michigan had a lot to do with that, but also an easier path to doing so.
Stefanovic is not only one of Purdue's most reliable and seasoned players on a team full of youth, and one of the Big Ten's premier three-point shooters, but he's also the focal point of so much of what the Boilermakers do offensively, a player who puts so much pressure on defenses that Purdue has so often been able to weaponize the attention he draws to generate opportunities for others.
Beyond that, it creates a domino effect of inexperience. Brandon Newman moved from the 2 to Stefanovic's 3. The differences aren't game-changers, but there's enough nuance involved for that to be another challenge for a young player at both ends of the floor. Ivey's ascension to the starting lineup cast him in a different light and shines a light on his lack of experience filling in for Stefanovic's wealth of it.
Purdue's issues vs. the Wolverines weren't exclusive to just the two young starters, however.
"You just want your experienced guys to balance out some of your inexperience," Painter said. "We didn't have good guard play tonight. Our decision-making had to be better. We had 14 turnovers and it felt like we had 24."
As Purdue managed just six points over nearly the game's first eight minutes — four of them off offensive rebounds, fittingly — Michigan opened up its first double-digit lead with around six minutes to go in the first half, and Purdue never got closer than 10 the rest of the game, kept at arm's length by the Big Ten's frontrunner, a hand tied behind its back by the unique circumstances of the 2020-2021 college basketball season.
THE BATTLE INSIDE
Without Stefanovic, Purdue didn't just not make threes; it barely got any.
Normally a high-volume three-point shooting team, the Boilermakers tried just a dozen, a few of them being irrelevant attempts in the final minute, the game having long been decided.
Newman's two triples early in the second half were Purdue's only two makes of the night.
Michigan guarded Purdue to take away the three-point line, Stefanovic or no Stefanovic, essentially daring the Boilermakers to beat them to the rim and finish. Purdue often did the former, but not the latter.
"We were getting to the paint when we wanted to," said Ivey, who scored 12 points but was just 3-of-12. "We didn't execute. ... We just didn't have it tonight, and it shows from all over."
At the same time, Purdue couldn't get Trevion Williams going until a stretch during the second half.
Williams played Michigan freshman star Hunter Dickinson essentially to a stalemate, though neither of them put their best foot forward.
Dickinson went for just eight points on 3-of-7 shooting, with six turnovers and four fouls.
But Williams' 14 points came on 6-of-19 shooting.
"We're two physical guys," Williams said. "I was trying my best to be physical without fouling, something I've been struggling with the past few games. Some things didn't go my way, and that's just something you have to deal with, but that doesn't stop me from being physical."
BIG WEEK AHEAD
This was supposed to be the week that Nebraska made up its postponed trip to Mackey Arena. That won't happen now because of the Cornhuskers' continued COVID issues, providing Purdue eight days between games.
It needs it now.
"It kind of works out the way our schedule is set up," Williams said.
Stefanovic will miss at least Purdue's games vs. Minnesota at home and at Maryland.
In the meantime, it will get a week of practice to acclimate to life without a key player.
"We don't want it to be an excuse," Williams said. "Even in practice, we've proven to ourselves we can be a good team."
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