REGGIE HAYES: Purdue could benefit from more P.J. Thompson in March Madness offense

Purdue guard P.J. Thompson brings the ball up court against Maryland on Jan. 31. (Photo by the Associated Press)

There’s not one exclusive factor necessary for Purdue University’s men’s basketball team to thrive in the NCAA Tournament, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to get P.J. Thompson going again.

I’ve been rooting for Thompson throughout his Purdue career because he’s the ultimate overachiever. He’s average in size (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) and usually considered by most as the fifth offensive option in a potent Boilermakers attack. On top of that, he comes across as the type of student-athlete who gets what college basketball should be about.

Consider what Purdue coach Matt Painter said about Thompson two weeks ago.

“P.J. Thompson really hit the nail on the head when he said you put others before yourself, and that’s what a good teammate does,” Painter said.

Some players talk a good, unselfish game, Painter said. Thompson lives it.

“A lot of times you will hear guys say the right things because they think that’s what their parents or their coaches want them to say,” Painter said. “P.J. Thompson actually believes it. When he’s saying something, he believes it.”

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As No. 2 seed Purdue (28-6) prepares to play No. 15 seed Cal State Fullerton (20-11) in its NCAA Tournament opener at 12:40 p.m. Friday (TruTV) in Detroit, the inherent unselfishness within the Boilermakers remains one of the team’s best attributes.

But if Thompson finds his offensive groove again, it would be a huge boost to the offense in general and a fresh problem for defenses concentrating on Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias.

Thompson averages 7.1 points per game. He’s hitting 43.8 percent from three-point range, which is second best on the Boilers behind Mathias’ 46.4 percent, although Mathias has taken 73 more threes. It’s a credit to Thompson’s team-first approach that he has altered his game from high scorer at Brebeuf High School to complementary scorer at Purdue. He’s a winning-is-the-only-goal type of player.

Yet if you look at Purdue’s last four losses (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Michigan), an absence of shooting touch from Thompson has played a role. He went scoreless against Ohio State and Wisconsin and hit only a single three in each of the other two games. Thompson was 2-for-11 from three-point range in the four losses.

Thompson hasn’t reached double figures since scoring 12 points in Purdue’s 78-76 win over Rutgers on Feb. 2. The closest he came was nine points at Illinois, which was decent production considering Edwards scored 40 points that night.

I’m not saying Thompson needs to score in double digits to win. He’s only scored in double figures in 10 of 34 games. Purdue has won often when he’s scored 5 or 6 points. However, six of those double-digit performances came in the Boilermakers’ 19-game winning streak, when everything was clicking.

Again, there are plenty of factors ranking higher than Thompson scoring in the necessities for Purdue to make a tournament run. A partial list: Improved defense, improved defensive rebounding, a healthy Vincent Edwards, phenomenal play from Carsen Edwards and streaky shooting off screens from Mathias. Oh, and Isaac Haas dominating and Nojel Eastern hitting an occasional free throw.

The Thompson factor gets more to the heart of Purdue’s overall play. When they are operating as one on the offensive end, Thompson is part of the perimeter attack. When they lean too heavily on Carsen Edwards’ driving and Haas working the post, things stagnate.

Past Purdue teams could overcome offensive sluggishness with stellar defense. This is an adequate but not great Purdue defensive team. It does not have Rapheal Davis or Chris Kramer to shut people down. It does not appear to be as relentless on defense. That’s OK. Not every team is a defensive juggernaut.

Strong offense will be required, and Purdue’s strongest this season came when everyone contributed. The Boilers need Thompson to rediscover his groove. If he does, good things will happen.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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