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Braden Smith’s brilliance propels No. 2 Purdue past Gonzaga at Maui Invitational

HONOLULU — Braden Smith has one of those basketball brains where he stores every bit of information. He doesn’t forget.

The Purdue guard was playing a near-perfect game Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational — 4-of-4 shooting in the first half plus a few steals — until he took one dribble too many against No. 11 Gonzaga. -Coverage ball screen defense. Zags big man Ben Gregg got a hand on the ball, knocked it off Smith’s knee and let out a roar. The No. 2 Boilermakers trailed by five points at halftime and would have been down further if Smith hadn’t played so well. But Purdue coach Matt Painter expects Smith to know better.

“A little less is more,” Painter said. “For example, you can’t just attack and get past their outside shoulder every time. If they beat you there, you need to be able to dribble back, get the ball out of your hands, rotate them, and let other people do the work.

Fast forward to when Purdue was ready to deliver the knockout blow in the second half. There was Gonzaga big man Graham Ike guarding and hitting the ball aggressively. Smith dribbled in retreat, waiting for Ike to turn his back and pursue Zach Edey, then read the tag, delivering an on-target pass to Myles Colvin for a pace 3.

Less than a minute later, Smith took the initiative and barked at the Gonzaga bench, who he had heard was “sucky” throughout the game.

“Everyone has something to say, so I had something to respond to,” Smith said. “I say to myself, ‘All right, brother. This is my second year beating you, but okay.’

Smith doesn’t forget.

The sophomore guard was brilliant for the second straight year against the Bulldogs, recording 14 points and seven assists last year in Portland, then had 13 points, six assists and five steals in the 73-63 victory from Monday.

If you want a reason to bet on Purdue to win in March of this year, it’s the evolution of Smith and the arrival of a secondary manager in Lance Jones.

The end of last year was nightmarish for Smith. He had seven turnovers in the NCAA Tournament loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. It was a lot for a freshman to do. He needed help in the backcourt. Someone else who can handle the ball and a guard with some speed to compete with smaller teams. That’s why adding a guard like Jones, who transferred from Southern Illinois, was so important. Smith believes FDU’s loss wouldn’t happen if Purdue had Jones, who also scored 13 points against Gonzaga.

More importantly, Jones was able to guard Gonzaga’s star point guard, Ryan Nembhard, the most grueling assignment of the day.

“It’s been amazing,” Smith said of the addition of Jones. “I just helped myself and my legs. I’m not that tired. He’s another guy to make plays.

Jones also gives Purdue a slasher that was missing. He got to the rim several times against the Zags, especially in transition. The senior is like Smith in that he attacks like he has something to prove. “He’s a little older,” Smith said, “so he knows how to control it a little more.”

Smith keeps any slights in his back pocket, and he says Painter encourages him. “I was born with an advantage,” he says. “’I’ve always played that way. I feel like I’ve achieved that, because otherwise I wouldn’t be playing in that type of environment.

He sells his game and his gifts short. The 6-foot sophomore may be small, but he has long arms – a 6-5 wingspan – and sees the play from both ends. The Zags would think they had a driving lane on Monday, and then there was Smith’s hand reaching out and knocking the ball away.

Offensively, Smith knows that if he uses his shoulders to get into a taller defender, his long arms will allow him to put the ball out of the reach of shot blockers.

This offers a change to just Edey, Edey, Edey for the Boilermakers.

Smith is a maestro working with ball screens. Most teams are playing coverage this season against Purdue to try to contain the 7-foot-4 reigning national player of the year. Smith made them pay by doing pull-ups instead of always trying to hit the roll man.

“My instinct is to try to get the ball to others in the right position,” he said. “Last year I tried to hit the roller too much. And I think now when I look for my chance, it opens things up, because then they have to respect me. Then once they respect me, then I can play those games.

Just as Edey sees a lot of different defenses, so will Smith the more successful he is. Gonzaga was more aggressive in coverage, and Smith used that to his advantage. Either waiting for a tick to drive once the extra defender disappears to chase Edey, or throwing off the screen and driving where the defense wasn’t.

Smith follows his coach’s orders by shooting more, but he will never be too aggressive to the detriment of his team. That was the difference on Monday. One team had a point guard in Nembhard who tried to do a little too much — Nembhard was 5 of 17 from the field, forcing tough shots late — while Smith controlled the game and played smart almost every time.

And it resulted in the only stat he cares about: a win.

(Photo of Braden Smith driving Gonzaga’s Luka Krajnovic: Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

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