UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Jaden Ivey, at times, appears to hold the game on a string.
That’s the thrill, and the danger, of it all.
As enrapturing as Ivey’s game can be, he also still has the penchant to vex. Just four games into his sophomore season, though, evolution and progress are taking shape. Just over midway through the second half of sixth-ranked Purdue’s 93-84 win vs. No. 18 North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament on Saturday, the Tar Heels finally found a way to earn the lead — their first — against the Boilermakers. Talented Marquette transfer Dawson Garcia hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 9:21 remaining to make it a 65-64 game.
Carolina didn’t know it, but this was its window. And it was going to shut, in real time, in less than three minutes. After Purdue center Zach Edey went 1 for 2 from the foul line on the ensuing possession, UNC had a chance to retake the lead. Tar Heels guard Kerwin Walton missed a 3-pointer, and the game was set to tilt permanently in Purdue’s favor.
Ivey flipped it in a flash. He grabbed Walton’s miss near the baseline, then pushed up the floor. As Ivey continued to make headway to the rim, he duped three UNC defenders into his area like a tractor beam.
Sasha Stefanovic — who’d already sank four 3s — was ready, alone and waiting. Ivey delivered a whip-back pass. Splash. Purdue’s up three.
Next play: UNC’s Caleb Love can’t convert on a move inside. Ivey picks up the rebound and is off to the races again. He’s blazing until he’s not. He’s got Carolina’s defenders in retreat, but he stops right of the foul line and sends a pass to his left — Isaiah Thompson’s wide open in the corner. He hasn’t made a shot yet. Until now. Ivey’s pass hits Thompson in stride perfectly. Up and — swish.
Three breaths and it’s 71-65 Purdue.
One more. On the ensuing possession, Walton tries to cut the lead to four with a shot close to the rim. No go. Edey — a massive human; he’s 7-foot-4 and looks every centimeter of that — interrupts matters. Edey rebound, pass to Thompson, who — hello! — has Ivey trailing him until he’s not, because they’re side by side. The pass is made, Ivey angles in, draws contact and makes an awkward bucket in transition. Purdue is now up eight and Ivey is gesturing at the crowd as if to say, “This is my game!” (only he didn’t say “game”) and North Carolina has no idea what’s happened.
The game has been capsized. Purdue just snatched back all that UNC had worked for. A steak would die on Saturday. Purdue ended an eight-game skid to North Carolina that dated back to 1977. Ivey grew up in this one. Those three consecutive possessions showed why. Game on a string. Just don’t get careless.
“He’s made strides in that area,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Ivey’s passing. “He needs to be able to do all the time. Any talented guy you’ve been around, sometimes they try to take on too much. And he’s got shooters with him, he’s got size with him, and he still needs to be aggressive. But I just thought they were great passes. Getting them to play athletic guys that can attack the rim, getting them — when it’s not there — to play off two feet and just do something simple. Sometimes it’s a hard thing for a coach to get across. And both of those plays that he made there were just simple plays.”
Simple, but effective and deflating for UNC. Ivey (22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals) had the best game of his career, and his first double-double in Purdue threads.
“He still has a ways to go,” Painter said. “He can dominate a game through his passing. Sometimes it’s not always through his scoring.”
Painter’s had some special teams at Purdue; four of them have finished top-10 level at KenPom. The one he’s coaching this season is currently No. 4 in that metric; he’s never had a team finish that high. This one can. And it’s not just because of Ivey, though he’s a special player who had many NBA scouts on hand at Mohegan Sun Arena convinced he’s lottery-pick material nine months from now.
“I’m just being a better playmaker,” Ivey said. “Just try to make the right reads for my teammates. I put in countless hours in the gym. I know it’s gonna be teams that are going to play me to score the ball. And I know I’m just trying to make the right reads to my teammates.”
But consider the potential that Purdue could be the most well-rounded offensive team in the country. It rates No. 2 to Gonzaga in offensive efficiency, but unlike Gonzaga, Purdue returned its starting five. In the first half, it wasn’t Ivey or Edey or preseason All-American Trevion Williams who carried the load. It was senior sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic, who had 16 points and four assists. Stefanovic finished 23, while Ivey had 22 and Williams had 20. The last time three Purdue players put up 20 apiece: almost 24 years ago to the day (Nov. 24, 1997).
The Boilers’ 55.7% shooting was their most accurate through four games. Something good is underway here.
Painter told CBS Sports after the win that Williams is unlike any other player he’s coached before in this regard: he’s never had someone who’s so slow to start a game yet so reliable to end it.
“Trevion Williams is a great finisher — he’s never been a good starter of a game,” Painter said. “He’s never been consistent as a starter, but I’ve never been around somebody that can just have an awful first half, then be the best player in college basketball in the second half. Like, he finishes games, and when things count just makes play after play. It’s amazing.”
Williams ranked sixth in our preseason list of the best players in college basketball. And now he’s not even starting. Being that he’s a big, and so is Edey, Painter doesn’t put both on the floor at the same time. As anyone who knows basketball will tell you, the important time is how you finish. Williams is a closer. After combining to score six points in 12 minutes with Edey in the first half, Williams effectively ended UNC’s hope.
If Ivey’s sequence flipped the game back, Williams’ array of plays ended all doubt. UNC cut the Purdue lead to 74-72 with 6:39 to go. At that point Painter knew it was time for Williams to stay in for the remainder of the game, so he checked him in. On the first play, he backed down Garcia in the post and got a bucket. He had 10 points and three rebounds in the final six-plus minutes.
“At that point in the game it was about who was going to be tougher,” Williams said. “I knew when I came in I had to be aggressive. I’ve been in these situations before. I know when the game comes down to the line, I’ve got to step up and make big plays.”
Williams is a classic to watch on the block. Aggressive post moves, but a delicate touch and a sense of how to use angles. His spin on Garcia on the block that led to a kiss off the glass and put Purdue up 81-72 with 4:59 to go was the nail. Williams’ efficiency is absurd, by the way. He had 20 points in 13 minutes on Saturday; few players can do that at this level. Painter said Williams’ per-40 stat line equated to 60 points. For the season, Williams is at nearly 30 points per 40 minutes.
Accepting coming off the bench — despite being your team’s best player on many nights — is uncommon humility in modern college basketball.
“This dude is a leader,” Ivey said of Williams. “A team player. He loves this team, he love all of us. That’s my brother. … Just to have him on our team is a blessing, for real.”
And then there’s the 7-4 Canadian (Edey) who’s only in his fifth season of organized basketball (and is only getting better). Purdue’s potential is so much fun. What a show this team put on Saturday, which doubled as its first real test of the season. The Big Ten’s been iffy to start, but the Boilermakers are an exception to that. Painter’s team is averaging 94.3 points. Saturday marked the first time the Boilers started a season dropping 90 or more in four straight games.
Painter said this team can’t average 90 for the season, but still: this could wind up being as complete of a group on the offensive end as he’s had. (Conspicuously, Purdue had only two second half turnovers on Saturday.) Defensively, there’s obviously concerns. And given Painter said it’s “kind of impossible” to properly prepare for No. 5 Villanova (who defeated No. 17 Tennessee 71-53 in the first game of this four-team event) on a one-day turnaround, keep an eye out for that when the teams play Sunday in the championship here at Mohegan Sun.
The offense, though. Fluid, dynamic, efficient, something for everyone. Purdue looks as vigorous with the ball as any team could hope to be this season. In Ivey they have a potential college superstar and probable lottery pick. In Edey they have the largest human in college basketball. In Williams they have one of the toughest and most reliable big men in the country. In Stefanovic they have a career 41% 3-pointer shooter who is a blue-hot 53.3% through four games this season.
No one looks like this team. Maybe no one will be able to play or score like them, either.