The last in our three-part series, the Boilermakers came into the year with the lowest expectations of the trio of Indiana, Butler, and Purdue. Their resume in head coach Matt Painter’s tenure is certainly far from last, but even the most optimistic of Boiler fans knew that this would be a year of reloading/rebuilding.
As the second month of the season winds down on Saturday with a non-conference clash with William & Mary, it’s evident that it’s more of the latter this season and not the former.
The Boilermakers head into Saturday’s game with an under .500 record and off the heels of an 11-day break. With losses already at Eastern Michigan and at home to Bucknell to open the season, even Saturday’s game can’t be considered a sure thing for the Boilers. William & Mary hasn’t lost in a month, and enters the game with a 7-3 mark on the season.
Purdue won’t be able to ease into Big Ten play either, opening with Illinois, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Only good news for the Boilers with that trio of games is that two of those three will be played at Mackey Arena. There aren’t many holes in Big Ten play for anyone this year. The only bit of good news concerning the upcoming schedule for Purdue is that a non-conference tilt against West Virginia on January 19th appears to match two teams that are similar in their struggles. The Mountaineers are just 6-5 this season.
Our question in late October as the hoops season rolled around was “Who are all these kids playing for Purdue?” We know more than we did two months ago, but a lot of questions will be answered in the following two months, if not two years for a group primarily comprised of underclassmen.
A quick check of the stats shows a couple of very troubling numbers. First, Purdue is shooting 27 percent from three-point range, and making just over four per game. Never was that issue more evident than a home loss to Xavier where the Boilers went 0 for 17 from deep.
The other number that isn’t as glaring, but certainly catches your attention is the fact that Purdue currently has more turnovers than assists on the year. The turnover numbers aren’t huge. Purdue is averaging under 14 per game. However, they are only dishing it out just over 13 times per game.
Both sets of these numbers bear out what a glance at the roster before the season began would tell you. This is a team whose strength is in its numbers and size in the low block. Easily the most impressive number for Purdue this season is its ability to outrebound opponents, to the tune of over nine boards per game. Purdue is built like a team of the 80s, before the days of the three-point line.
In one sense, you would expect young backcourt players like Anthony and Ronnie Johnson to improve as the season continues. On the other hand, their competition will do just the same. Purdue has played a solid non-conference schedule, with games against Oregon State, Villanova, Xavier, and Notre Dame. None of those teams are the equal of Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, and perhaps a few more in the league.
And next year’s recruiting class for Matt Painter reflects where this group’s strength lies. It’s an all backcourt and wing group, led by Bryson Scott of Ft. Wayne Northrop. But those kids aren’t on campus until next year. and that group will likely have to go through growing pains like the five scholarship freshmen season have endured this year.
All is not negative surrounding this Purdue team. I think AJ Hammons could be an absolute beast in the Big Ten. He’s second on the team in scoring at just under ten points per game, and leads the group in rebounding. His talents are perfectly suited for a throwback team built around the low block. He’s an old-school lunch pail type of center. At seven feet tall, and 280 pounds, you can count on two hands the players built like him in major college hoops. He’s got a good touch for a kid his size. He’s further along in his development at this stage of his career than a guy like JaJuan Johnson, who finished his days as a Boilermaker as one of their best post players in program history.
I’d also expect to see Raphael Davis getting more minutes as the season continues. A freshman averaging four and a half points and three boards a game is solid, but when I tell you that comes in 11 minutes a night, now that catches your attention. The only bad news for Davis is that he plays behind DJ Byrd in the small forward rotation. If Purdue goes smaller with Jay Simpson lost for the season, that could mean more minutes for the Fort Wayne native.
I thought this Purdue team could scratch out 18 wins before the Big Ten tourney, and sneak into the NCAA tournament. Let’s recalibrate the math here. If Purdue can beat both William & Mary and West Virginia, they’d need to 9-9 in league play just to guarantee an NIT bid. With ten games against teams currently in the top 20 remaining, that doesn’t seem likely. If this team can secure a postseason bid of any kind would be a great teaching tool for Matt Painter. That could mean a trip to the CBI, which is the tournament Butler played in a year ago. They do accept teams that finish the season under .500.
It could be a long couple of months for Purdue hoops fans. Thankfully, most of the players who will learn from these lessons will be around for awhile to turn those experiences into positive ones down the road.