Even though we had a decent idea JaJuan Johnson was coming back thanks to Brian Neubert at GBI, there was still some doubt today. With that in mind, Mrs. T-Mill and I took advantage of a free Saturday to head to Purdue for some baseball. If we were going to get good news, I wanted to be on campus (appropriately, in my E'Twaun jersey) when the news came through.
That news came in about the fourth inning of Purdue's 8-5 win over Michigan State. JJ was coming back. After reading the Tweet via mobile web, I did a fist pump and tried to contain my joy. I wanted them to make an announcement during the baseball game so we could properly applaud the moment. I half expected the news to be shouted from the Belltower as Hail Purdue played out of dorm windows. Take note: This was Purdue first major victory on the way to the 2011 National Title.
And yes, I want to place the bar of expectation that high. This group is deep enough, experienced enough, and talented enough to demand nothing less. Everyone is talking Final Four, but I know we can win the entire things once we get there. I don't know if we will ever have another chance as good as this one. We're already going to come into the season as a top 3 team, if not #1 overall. It is time to think beyond a mere Final Four, which can happen to anyone even as a fluke (George Mason 2006), and start thinking about winning the entire thing.
It was interesting to see the reaction on campus as we walked around the Village after the game. One guy at Von's with his girlfriend could barely contain himself as he got a text from a buddy with the news. Dozens of people were walking around in basketball gear. The Special was driving around, blowing the horn in celebration. This was a big day. I have talked about it being the most important day in the history of Purdue basketball, and in a way, it might have been.
If JJ doesn't return we still have a very good team next year. There would be depth, scoring, and talent, but JJ would have been that missing piece that would take it from very good to great. Basketball is all about matchups. Purdue has struggled with Northwestern lately not because of talent, but because they are a horrible matchup for us. With JJ, we can create all kinds of mismatches with different lineups. If we're facing a bigger team, like Duke, we can go big with Marcius/Carroll, JJ, and Robbie. If we're facing a team with excellent guards we can go small. Look at what we did against West Virginia this year. We dominated a team that played in the Final Four because we had that right matchup against them.
It won't be easy though. The non-conference schedule will be difficult with a trip to West Virginia, a road game against a top ACC team, the Chicago Classic, and at home against Alabama. The Big Ten will be even tougher. Michigan State is going to be excellent. Ohio State will be talented, but they won't be as experienced as us or the Spartans. Illinois will be very good. Wisconsin will be tough as nails again. Northwestern and Minnesota will be dangerous. Nearly every game will be a war.
I'd go to war against any team with this lineup though. What team in the country will be as versatile as us? Here is how I see things playing out lineup-wise:
PG - Lewis Jackson (Jr.)
SG - E'Twaun Moore (Sr.)
SF - Kelsey Barlow (So.)
PF - Robbie Hummel (Sr.)
C - JaJuan Johnson (Sr.)
Four of those spots are locked down, with only Barlow's up in the air a bit. He gets the edge with previous starting experience, but I can see D.J. Byrd earning a spot there. A full season of Lewis Jackson with this group will only make us better. I don't think we ever had him at 100% this past year, especially with that broken screw. Barring another setback we will have him for a full season. This lineup gives up three proven scorers and nearly 50 points a game from those three before anyone else even scores a single point. Asking for another 20-25 per night from everyone else combined while we work on keeping teams below 65 defensively is not too much to ask.
Top Bench Guys:
D.J. Byrd - So. - Possible starter. His versatility offensively will be critical. He is also the top candidate to replace Chris Kramer's intensity. Kramer defense is the only major component we must replace. I think Byrd has the motor to help with that.
Terone Johnson - Fr. - This kid is better than anyone thinks. He's already built to handle the physical nature of the Big Ten. I can see him playing immediately and becoming a key contributor. He is also big enough to guard some bigger players and grit out some tough rebounds. We're going to be pleasantly surprised with him, mark my words.
Sandi Marcius - Fr.
Travis Carroll - Fr. - As long as one of these guys can be a consistent rebounder, solid pick-setter, and garage guy around the basket we can break teams. They can allow JJ to shift to the four position and Robbie out the three. Just think how good we can be if one of these guys can be a Brian Zoubek type? We've never been able to do that under coach Painter.
Ryne Smith - Jr. - He turned it on in the NCAA's as a 3-point specialist. I always have room for shooters like him on my team.
John Hart - So.
Anthony Johnson - Fr. - Both of these guys are instant offense types. They may not get a lot of minutes on some nights, while on others they can have a performance like Hart did at Illinois this year. These are excellent weapons to have because of their nature. They are unexpected scoring that teams don't normally account for. That unexpected scoring can turn the tide in any contest.
Patrick Bade - So. - Another year should allow Bade to spell JJ and/or Robbie for a few minutes at a time. He has more collegiate experience than Carroll or Marcius, so that should pay some dividends.
Bubba Day - Jr. - I don't know if Day will stick around, but he is another shooter that could potentially fulfill a Bobby Buckets role. I doubt there will be many minutes though.
Dru Anthrop - So. - Anthrop is a competitor that I think will find the floor regularly before his career is done at Purdue.
Kyle Coleman - So. - I don't think the minutes are there, but Coleman will be a great practice player.
We can now legitimately go 13 deep in terms of scholarship guys. All of them can fill a necessary role as well. We can keep guys fresh at all times, adjust to various looks we are facing, and find scoring from nearly every player in that 13 man rotation. Barlow and LewJack give us experienced ballhandlers to bring the ball up the floor. That may be our thinnest area, but it is hardly a major weakness. Both are liabilities at the free throw line, but in crunch time we'll be looking to get the ball to Robbie anyway. That leaves finding a replacement for Chris Kramer's defense our only major hurdle. With a more efficient and versatile offense it may not matter.
How can we not be excited for next year? Other teams may have more talent, but with slightly less talent we fit together better than almost anyone else out there. JJ was the key and the missing piece for this team. I have seen what was coming for some time and I have looked to 2011 as a National Championship year because of those pieces. I thought this year would be the Final Four, while next year would be the title year all along. If Robbie doesn't get hurt, we likely would have been right on schedule for that. Now that he is back (and ahead of schedule) it is time to take what is ours: the 2011 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship.