WEST LAFAYETTE — When it comes to recruiting and developing big men, few do it better than Purdue.
The Boilers have built their brand on the backs of players like Carl Landry, A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. This focus on the front court has continued into a new generation, featuring Matt Haarms, Evan Boudreaux and Trevion Williams.
Thursday night, more front-court star power will be on display inside Mackey Arena when the Boilermakers (5-3, 0-1 Big Ten) try to end their two-game skid. But this time, when Purdue hosts Maryland (7 p.m., BTN), at least some of it will be wearing the other uniform.
The Terps (7-1, 1-0) feature what Purdue coach Matt Painter considers “NBA” caliber big men in Bruno Ferdnando and Jalen Smith. They combine to create one of the most potent front-court tandems in the Big Ten and one of the key matchups to watch.
“We have our hands full there,” Painter said. “We’re going to have to do a good job of not letting them get the basketball where they want, not letting them get second-chance opportunities. But that’s easier said than done.”
Fernando did enough to prove himself in his first season in College Park that he was named one of five players on the Big Ten’s All-Freshman team. He’s taken the next step in his second season and is currently averaging 15.4 points and 10 rebounds. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he’s a physical, traditional type of center who can use his athleticism to block shots and catch lobs. He’s shooting a ridiculous 73.1 percent from the field.
His front-court mate, Smith, is an early candidate for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Baltimore native is averaging 12.6 points and 7.3 rebounds. At 6-10 and 215 pounds, he’s almost a center playing power forward.
The combination of size, strength and rebounding will be a challenge for the Boilers.
“They essentially play two fives,” Purdue power forward Grady Eifert said. “A big four and a five. I think it’s going to be good for us to test where we are physically.”
In years past, fans often clamored for Painter to play both of his big men together, whether it was Haas and Swanigan in 2016-17 or Haas and Haarms last year. It sounded good in theory. But in practice, it left Purdue too vulnerable on the perimeter, especially against face-up fours.
Painter said the Terps have more length and athleticism in the front court to make it work together. But ...
"They haven’t gone through the Big Ten, either," Painter said. "Both of those guys are going to have to guard smaller people, and smaller people are going to have to guard them. That will be the telltale for them. Not their ultimate success, but their success together."
With a new (and slightly different) crop of big men, Purdue just might be able to create some of the same mismatch problems on the perimeter it faced in years past.
At the four, Eifert has shown he can step outside to hit a 3-pointer. Off the bench, redshirt freshman Aaron Wheeler is beginning to find his rhythm, hitting a pair of 3-pointers at Michigan.
At the five, both of Purdue’s primary centers (Haarms and Boudreaux) are more mobile than in years past. Boudreaux in particular presents an interesting problem for Maryland. In ball-screen action, he has the ability to pop out and hit a 3-pointer or slip to the basket for an easy layup. Playing a two-man game with Carsen Edwards, he’s used these approaches to score 10.3 points per game.
“They’re really talented,” Boudreaux said. “They’re obviously huge and really skilled. I definitely think a lot of the game is going to come down to how our bigs fare against their bigs.”