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December 8, 2009

Adjusting on the fly

More or less a guard in high school, D.J. Byrd found himself defending a 6-foot-9 power forward for most of the 15 minutes he played against Buffalo earlier this week.

Against Wake Forest a few days earlier, he saw action against a front line whose shortest starter was 6-9.

But with Purdue's needs being what they are right now - the Boilermakers have lots of guards, not so many post players - this is the role the 6-5 freshman is happy to assume.

"It's a challenge," Byrd said, "but there are challenges every day in practice and I embrace it and just try to do my best."

With freshman big man Sandi Marcius sidelined likely until January with a broken foot, an already fairly thin frontcourt has been made even thinner. As it stands right now, juniors JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel and freshman Patrick Bade are the Boilermakers' only true post players, if you count the versatile Hummel as such.

So that's left a void that Byrd's helping to fill, playing about 12-and-a-half minutes per game.

"He has some physical strength as a freshman a lot of guys don't have," Coach Matt Painter said, "but it's where our need is right now, for him to play kind of that face-up 4 position, because we have a lot of guards and we have a lot of other guys at that 2/3 position. But I think as his career goes on, he'll be able to play multiple positions."

Byrd, Painter said, did move out to more of a small forward's role for a few minutes against Wake Forest, but his assignments defensively have overwhelmingly been the opponent's power forward type.

Offensively, not all that much changes really, as Purdue's 4 men - see Hummel - largely face the basket and have opportunities to shoot threes.

While scoring is anything but Byrd's primary role, he's given the Boilermakers some long-range punch in reserve, hitting on six of the 15 three-pointers he's fired, for a 40-percent clip.

With fifth-ranked Purdue mired in a shooting slump during the first half against Buffalo, it was Byrd's three-pointer with about two minutes to play in the first half that broke a long streak of futility for his team and might have served as the initial nudge that led to a deluge of threes in the second half.

Unlike in high school, where Byrd routinely carried his North Montgomery offensively, shooting 20-30 times per outing, he now must pick his spots judiciously.

"Our team has a lot of different scorers," said Byrd, who's averaging 4.3 points per game, tops among Purdue's freshmen to date. "... Anybody can have a good game and go off. I'm just trying to find my place on the team. I'm just trying to do whatever I can. If that's just taking the open shot, I'll do that. We have a lot of big-time players on this team and I'm not really concerned about scoring."

Byrd is concerned about defense, like all of the Boilermaker freshmen, a group plagued by foul problems thus far in their young careers.

Kelsey Barlow leads the Boilermakers in fouls with 23, with Byrd and Bade close behind with 21 apiece. They, of course, play half the minutes of some of their older teammates.

For a player known for his "motor," the challenge for Byrd is learning to stave off the whistles, particularly as the defensive matchups get more and more daunting.

"I don't know if I have to play any harder, but I have to play smarter," said Byrd, when asked about overcoming the size disparity he sometimes faces. "Sometimes you can play hard, but not be smart about it, over-running plays and things like that. ... I'm just trying to channel my effort in the right direction."


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