This is one of the hardest articles I have ever had to write for this site. It is difficult because I honestly believed, until last night, that we were going to win the National Championship. When everything was perfect this looked like it was going to be the year. When Rob went down, I still believed. Our pantsing of Ohio State proved it was possible. Then we have last night's loss, which was painful because we got beat because of an appalling lack of defense.
It is also painful because we were exactly what our detractors thought we were. We were historical Purdue, an entity that always comes up short at a chance for greatness. In fact, we have been historical Purdue since the Iowa game. Only our vastly superior talent against St. Peter's had us thinking we were past that.
I think that is the most painful part. Most of you that come here know what it means to be a Purdue fan. We are few, but we are deeply loyal and defend ourselves fiercely. Others mock us, but that only strengthens our resolve. We hear "Purdon't" "Five Banners" "No banners" and the like, but we remain faithful. We remain faithful because of years with expectations like this one, where we believe that something good may finally happen.
Then things like last night happen, where two of the greatest players in our history leave with a Big Ten Tournament title, a Big Ten regular season championship, and little else. They never even reached an Elite 8, much less a Final Four.
All we can do is move on. JJ and E`Twaun are gone now. We love them and wish them well, but Project Houston has now become Mission New Orleans. The hardest time to believe is right now, but I believe we can still achieve a Final Four next season. It will be difficult, but not impossible. Here is what we need:
1. Robbie Hummel back and finally healthy - By the time he takes the floor it will have been almost 21 months and two ACL surgeries since he last played competitive basketball. The fire is still there though. The fire is there because he was the one player crying last night as the game ended. In the end, as great as JJ and Smooge were this year, we lacked a missing leadership quality that Rob would have given us. I think this year would have been fine with Rob, or if we could have somehow kept Chris Kramer on the floor. Some guys are just leaders and able to take charge of The Moment. As good as JJ and E`Twaun are, I don't think they have this quality as much as Rob and Chris.
We may not get the same player that Rob was before his injury, but we will get his leadership back, which was sorely needed at times this year. Losses Like Minnesota, Iowa, West Virginia, and Wisconsin probably don't happen with Rob on the floor with the rest of the gang. That's the difference between a three seed and a likely 1 seed.
When Rob went down he was average almost 16 points and seven rebounds per game. While we lose 38 points, 14 rebounds, and four assists per game, it is not inconceivable that Rob replaces half of that. Sure, he will not have JJ and E`Twaun sharing the focus of opposing defenses, but through leadership and sheer basketball IQ I think 18 points and seven rebounds per game can be expected.
2. Travis Carroll, Sandi Marcius, and Patrick Bade must improve - Of the three infamous Hansons I think Carroll has the most potential. He lacked necessary strength and athleticism this year as a true freshman, but if he can have a physical transformation a lot like Bade did I think it will pay off greatly. We don't need Carroll to be JJ, but I think it will be beneficial to our offense because he'll be more of a true post as opposed to a player that played all over like JJ. His midrange jumper is excellent. If he can be a rebounder and gain the strength for a few putbacks near the basket per game I think he will improve the most.
I think Marcius is in the same boat. It is obvious that he is still very, very raw even after being on campus for two years. No one has his physical size, however. We don't need a lot out of him. I just want to see him develop into a guy that can play a few minutes every night, grab some rebounds, and get a few garbage baskets. We didn't get a lot of garbage baskets this year, and those can make a difference.
As for Bade, I don't know what to say. He was disappointing this season after everything that coach Painter said. He was a virtual no-show during the Big Ten season and actually scored fewer points (18) than he did as a freshman (51). I am never going to malign a kid as others have in the comments and tell him to transfer. We accepted Patrick and I will always see him as a potential contributor. I know it won't come without hard work, however. He needs to start that work this morning if he wants to make a difference or fade further into the background.
3. Terone Johnson, D.J. Byrd, and Ryne Smith must become more consistent - As I explained above, I think Rob can replace about half statistically of what we are losing. The other half likely needs to come from these guys, plus Lewis Jackson. D.J. is a solid player, but was up and down. Ryno was a streak shooter this year, but his ability to hit open shots needs to improve. I think he could become a Jon Diebler type that doesn't necessarily lead us in scoring every night, but he can knock down open threes and cause a lot of damage if others are on.
As for TJ, I have looked at him as an E`Twaun 2.0 in terms of potential. I want to see his scoring increase from five points per game to 10. He played the best of this year's freshmen, so it is time for him to take a larger role.
4. At least two of the newcomers need to play significant roles - I feel like I need to defer to Andy here since he knows more about recruiting, but there will be a definite role for Jacob Lawson and Donne Hale to fill. I feel like we have the guards that can replace E'Twaun, but you don't graduate an All-America forward and expect to get the same production he next year. This is where Donnie Hale and Jacob Lawson come in. Lawson is a 6'7" 220 power forward and we need him to be just that. On paper he gives up three inches, but only one pound to JJ. As you saw, we struggled mightily in the last four games because JJ was away from the basket and we didn't have a true power forward presence on offense or defense. Can Lawson be that guy?
I have heard a lot of good things about Hale in terms of being a shooter and a Robbie-lite. He's already 6'8" and close to 200 pounds, so he is another big we can definitely use. I think coach Painter will use both Lawson and Hale, combined with Hummel, Bade, Carroll, and Marcius to give us a different type of Purdue team than we have had in some time. When Painter took over we had Carl Landry and... well, that was it in terms of post players. Even in losing JJ, we will have more depth in the post than at any other time during his career. If we have to go back to Purdue basketball and dirty it up on the defensive end while these guys learn the ropes offensively that's fine. Last night was proof that a little defense would have been fine, as we scored 76 points but gave up 94.
Let's not forget Anthony Johnson, either. He's listed at 6'3" 175 and was a 4-star recruit. His redshirt year is over, so I hope he comes in at least weighing 185 with more muscle. He can supposedly fill it up too. Let's throw him into the guard rotation too.
Carroll, TJ, and Marcius gave us only seven points and six rebounds per game as the freshmen this year. Is it outside the realm of possibility that AJ, Lawson, and Hale can give us at least that, if not double?
5. The Wild Cards: Kelsey Barlow and John Hart - There are tons of questions on will they or won't they transfer. To me, there is no question we missed their depth late in the year and the production they gave us. Hart started off well, but never really gave us much after his foot injury. He has shown the ability to be a shooter in certain games, but his production has never been consistent. The thing to remember about Hart and his desire (or lack thereof) to transfer is that he will lose a year of eligibility if he goes to another Division I school. He has already used his redshirt and played two years, so would he go to a smaller school and play two years or go to another D-I if he only one year?
Then, of course, there is Barlow, who can be a great asset and a key piece of next year's team if he returns with his head on straight and finally buys into the team concept. I do not know why he was suspended. The two common theories I have heard (and I have spoken to a few people closer to the situation than I) were the "he came to practice smelling of alcohol" and "he failed a drug test". These are not facts by any means, but they have been prevalent as rumors all over the place. More prevalent than "He threw a ball rack at Ryno, giving him a concussion and deflecting off of him to break Hart's foot and re-injure Rob's knee". While I don't think his presence yesterday would have meant the difference between defeat and victory because VCU completely picked us apart, there is no question that his suspension was a distraction at the worst time.
I want Barlow back. I have no doubt that he is a player that can make a huge difference on next year's team. I only want him back, however, if he can get his head on straight and be totally focused. If Painter's "Tough Love" of suspending him for the tournament is what makes the difference then let's bring him back. Ultimately, it is up to Kelsey to decide though.
6. We still have Matt Painter - I saw a lot of negative comments last night about how this was a coaching issue. I don't think so. Coach Painter pushed this team to the heights it reached in February. I don't think he completely forgot how to coach in less than a month. Last night was a perfect storm of a defensive collapse. VCU was relentless, and we never adjusted. Coach Painter can teach and teach and teach, but it up to the players to perform. That is where the "on the floor" leadership that a Kramer or Hummel was missing and could have made a difference. It was plain for anyone that has ever played the game of basketball to see what we were doing wrong, but baffling that our own players still didn't adjust.
Coach Painter is still a young coach at only 40. Jim Boeheim (age 66), Coach K (age 64) and Jim Calhoun (age 68) are the highest active coaches on the wins list. They all have at least one National Title, and are all almost a quarter century older than Painter. So far in his career coach Painter has learned well from games and has been an excellent teacher. I see his demeanor in his eyes. I have no doubt whatsoever that the program is in good hands and that we will make a Final Four with him sometime in the next 10 years.
7. The rest of the Big Ten regresses - We lose two excellent seniors, but we are not the only team in the conference that loses a lot. Ohio State is losing three seniors in Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale, and David Lighty, plus Jared Sullinger and William Buford could easily go pro. Illinois loses four seniors. Michigan State loses Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers. Minnesota loses Al Nolen and Blake Hoffarber. Wisconsin loses Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor could go pro. Penn State loses five seniors. We're going to take a step back, but everyone else has to replace players that have been around a long time and have accomplished a lot. Right now, Michigan looks like a team that will take a big step forward, Ohio State will likely have another great recruiting class, you can never count out Michigan State, and Iowa could move forward big time. There is no clear-cut favorite, however.
Strangely, I feel like next year's team can be better than this year's because we are going to have to have more balance. Look at what happened this year. If E`Twaun had a bad game, we lost. Plain and simple. As much as people talked about needing a third scorer, we were heavily skewed towards JJ and E`Twaun. Next year we have to play together as a team to have success. We played our best basketball this year when everyone was on the same page and functioning as a single unit. Next year, that has to happen, but there are some solid pieces there.
We are most dangerous when we have multiple options on the offensive end (just as VCU was last night) and we function as a solid, switching unit on defense. If we get back to playing solid defense next year and distribute the scoring more evenly I see no reason the season cannot be a success. I think we can easily be a Sweet 16 team again that competes for the Big Ten championship if things come together. I know this loss stings, and it will for awhile, but we will move forward because we have to. The time to start is right now.