The unique tweak that could send Purdue on a deep NCAA Tournament run

There’s something very different about Purdue that almost nobody realizes, a philosophy that goes against all basketball coaching convention.

At the NBA level, an ideology prevails: a franchise needs three very-good-to-great players in order to win a title. If you’re going to compete with the best, you need three stars. In having those stars, you put them on the floor together as often as possible in order to maximize your potential and chances at winning in the short and long term. 

It’s counterintuitive to not put your three most influential players on the floor at the same time. That’s simple enough. You don’t need to have a coaching mindset to understand that basic concept. But that school of thought has been twisted by Purdue coach Matt Painter. What he’s decided to do -- and this has gone on most of the season -- could be the tweak that gets the Boilermakers (25-6) to a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Much has rightfully been made of Caleb Swanigan’s outstanding sophomore season. The Boilers big man has been the leading candidate for National Player of the Year at CBSSports.com for a month. Swanigan’s averaging 18.7 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and is shooting 54 percent from the field. He’s also 44.9 percent from 3-point range. Such a great college player he’s become. He’s good enough to carry Purdue to a Final Four, of that I’m sure.

But the Boilermakers aren’t being pulled along only by Swanigan. 

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Swanigan and Haas make a good team — but sometimes are better when on the floor separately.  USATSI

Second on the team in scoring: 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas (12.6 ppg). Third is Vincent Edwards (12.3 ppg), a nimble and fun forward that plays with a ton of energy and can score from all three levels. 

Amazingly, Painter almost never puts them on the floor at the same time. Over the past 10 weeks, it’s practically happened by accident, not design. The Boilermakers have separated themselves from the rest of the Big Ten and seemingly done it on the cheap. Swanigan, Haas and Edwards get along great, by the way. But Painter understands that the team’s offense isn’t best served with all three on the floor at the same time.

So Purdue wins by only putting two of them, tops, in the rotation at once.

“Don’t be quick to get your answer,” Painter told CBS Sports. “Let it evolve and happen. Don’t think, Here’s my best players and I’m going to play them all the time and get better. It doesn’t always happen like that.”

This season, Purdue has played 1,250 minutes. Of those minutes, the Edwards/Swanigan/Haas trio has been on the floor 102 minutes together, or 8.16 percent. In the Big Ten, Painter’s entirely abandoned the concept. Purdue’s played 750 minutes in Big Ten play. In that time, the trio has been on the floor all at once for 4 minutes and 15 seconds: 0.55 percent. 

Here’s another way of looking at it. KenPom.com tracks team lineups. Look at the evidence for yourself. 

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The two most frequent quintets don’t feature Isaac Haas, and the third-most used rotation -- a huge dropoff -- doesn’t feature Vincent Edwards.

Painter took this cue after failing to make it work effectively last year with A.J. Hammons, Haas and Swanigan. Swanigan is much more adept at playing the 4 or the 5, so there is maneuverability. 

“Swanigan makes it work where Hammons and Haas didn’t work because of Swanigan’s ablity to pass,” Painter said. “He knows how to get the ball to Isaac.”

When both bigs are in, they play through Haas. But even the idea of “playing through” isn’t like: feed the ball to Haas in the paint and work the offense around him. It’s more intricate than that. 

“We still don’t want to lose him getting the basketball in the low post just because Isaac’s in the game,” Painter said of Swanigan. 

Yes, when Swanigan plays the 5 and Haas is off the floor, he gets more opportunities in the key. But also, Painter specifically moves Swanigan out more because if he’s the 5, a bigger man will be forced to guard him, and he’ll be liable beyond 15 feet. 

“We also don’t want to overthink it and get away from our strengths,” Painter said. “It’s a tough call at times. Between all three of our leading scorers, they’ve all had struggles at one time or another turning the ball over.”

Painter has tracked this, and the efficiency numbers are undeniable, he said. The ball also moves better. Purdue’s offense scores 117.8 points per 100 possessions, up from last year’s tick of 115.8. The team averages 18.2 assists, second-best in the sport. Purdue’s won eight of its past nine, and this might well be the best team Painter’s ever coached.    

There is one more wrinkle to this already-proven experiment. Painter tracks all of his players’ production, but he tries to maintain balance across 80-minute gaps, not 40-minute games. He tries to make sure he’s not relying too much on Swanigan (who leads the team in minutes, but it’s not overbearing: 31.9 per game) and still feels like he can get enough out of his role players. This is something not every team could or should try, but it’s clear Painter has developed a system that benefits his team and allows his players to flourish. 

We hear about “dynamic” all the time. Sometimes that’s empty talk. With Purdue, there is empirical evidence to prove a dynamic that has concocted team success. Painter’s not too prideful to not put his best out there, and because of it, Purdue’s secret weapon is not using all of those weapons at once. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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