At the height of the Matt Painter to Missouri Saga I wrote the most read article in the history of Hammer & Rails. In it, I questioned if Purdue has a loser's mentality. The athletic department has the fewest National Championships of anyone in the Big Ten, sponsors the fewest sports, and had fewer conference championships than everyone except the two newest members of the league (Penn State and Nebraska). It wasn't even scathing. It pointed out the cold, hard facts about the program we all love.
friends most hated rivals at Black Heart Gold Pants published this week, Purdue receives some of the fewest dollars in terms of athletic contributions, meaning more that Big Ten Ro-Tel/Barbasol money does indeed have to go to salaries and facilities. This tells me it may not be the attitude of the athletic department, but the culture as a whole surrounding Purdue.
Well, it is my hope that I can reverse this trend even in a small way. The department has ponied up the dough to the basketball team. Several of you have agreed to join JPC at my urging (and be sure to use me as a referral!) As one of the school's biggest moneymakers, the basketball team is the flagship of the university right now. That means expectations of excellence must be maintained. I have already seen people dismiss us as not even being a top 25 team next season, but I beg to differ. Not only will we be a top 25 team if we get even modest improvement from the returning players, we will once again be a threat within the Big Ten. As for the NCAA Tournament, we're going to be playing in it. That means we're a threat to go to the Final Four. No, that is not a wild statement. If Butler can make consecutive Final Fours and teams like VCU and George Mason can make it simply by getting in, then so can we.
So, consider this the way too early look at next season, beginning with the Projected starters:
Robbie Hummel - F
Lewis Jackson - G
Ryne Smith - G
What did VCU and Butler have in common this year? Senior leadership. As much as I appreciate JJ and Smooge for what they did, they were not the vocal leaders on the floor that Chris Kramer was or that Rob, LewJack, and Ryno are. First of all, it looks good just to see Rob's name as a player and not as an injury. We were thinking the same thing last year, of course, but what are the odds that he tears his ACL yet again?
People make a big deal about what we lose in JJ and E`Twaun, as if it is too much to overcome (nevermind how much we were docked for losing Rob). In terms of numbers, we lose 38.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. Big numbers for sure, but Rob was averaging 15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.1 steals per game before he went down. Let's say that is his absolute ceiling coming back from injury. In all but points, we have replaced half of that lost production. We've replaced over a third of the scoring as well.
Obviously, Rob is the key to success. LewJack and Ryno will be key factors as well. Both were up and down scorers all season. They could drop 20 or be held scoreless. Next year they need to be more consistent. Together they averaged only five points in 2009-10, but jumped to 14.2 last year. Is it really outside the realm of possibility that we can get a consistent 16-20 out of them every night? I don't think so.
Travis Carroll - F
D.J. Byrd - F
Kelsey Barlow - G/F
Terone Johnson - G
These are four players that need to show the bulk of our improvement. All of them are capable of starting, and probably will depending on matchups. I've talked about TJ being E'Twaun 2.0 for a long time. Now is the time for him to show that. He can be a dynamic scorer capable of creating his own shot. He averaged 4.9 per game this year, but he needs to up it to at least 8 per game.
Barlow can be a scorer and a slasher. To me, his best role is one as a defensive stalwart and athletic slasher to the basket with or without the ball. GDB could be an excellent "garbage basket" guy where he crashes the glass and picks up 2-3 baskets per game on putbacks. Let's have him move from 5.1 points per game to 6.1. That's a very modest leap.
Byrd needs to be a player that develops consistency in his jumper. He had to play out of position as four a lot this past season, but he is more of a natural three that is capable of making a big leap. After averaging 5.2 points per game I think he can easily push that average up by two points or more.
Of the returning Hansons, Carroll showed the most promise. His biggest need is to gain strength in the weight room so he is a definite threat in the low post. He is not going to draw defenders beyond the three-point line, but he did show that he can hit the 15-footer with consistency. He's never going to be athletic like JJ, but he can be the bruising forward we have lacked for some time. He averaged 1.9 points per game, but he can easily double that with more minutes. He might even triple it just by getting a few more open looks at that 15-footer. If he makes teams respect that it opens things up for others.
Anthony Johnson - G
Donnie Hale - F
Jacob Lawson - F
John Hart - G
Personally, I don't see why people are freaking out about next year when we lose two, but gain four players in reality. Obviously Rob is the biggest gain, but Hale, AJ, and Lawson are like a new recruiting class. AJ was a four-star guy that can allegedly fill it up. No one in the conference knows anything about him, and he has had a year to practice, gain strength, etc. Hale is in the same boat and, by all-accounts, is a Hummel 2.0 type. Well, there is good news there. Rob averaged 11.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a freshman. Can Hale do even half of that? Sure!
Lawson is a major question mark. He has superb athleticism, but is recovering from the torn achilles. We all saw how it affected Kalin Lucas this year. Lucas had a full tear and less time to recover, however. Lawson had a partial tear, and will have had more than a year of recovery by the time he plays. People are rightfully throwing around the redshirt question with him, but we won't know until he gets into practice and we can assess his progress. He can either be a rotation player/power forward type or we may not see him for a year.
Then there is jumpin' Johnny Hart, who was our #3 scorer before hurting his foot. He scored nine points the rest of the season after returning from his injury, six of them in the Ohio State debacle. Your guess is as good as mine as to what he will contribute. He is capable of being a decent bench scorer, but he was a defensive liability, thus his minutes were cut.
Patrick Bade - F
Sandi Marcius - F
Dru Anthrop - G
Bubba Day -G
We're used to getting virtually nothing from these guys, so anything above that will be a surprise. Bade was supposed to make a major impact last season, but he wildly disappointed. I am not going to push him out the door by any means, but I just don't see him suddenly becoming a major contributor. He gave us some decent rebounds and a surprising thunderdunk in the non-conference season, but gave us nothing in the Big Ten. Of these four players he might, might breakout to crack the regular rotation, but it is not a good sign that Hale and Lawson could pass him as freshmen. At least he gives us depth in the frontcourt that we have never had under Painter.
Marcius is a project. He is a big body that is probably better than Chris Reid at this point, but he showed that he needs a lot of polish to be a regular contributor. I would be overjoyed if he could give us five minutes, a few rebounds, and a garbage basket here and there in every game. He should be able to accidentally do that with his size.
The Bastard Sons of Bobby Buckets are likely 20/20 guys again. You won't see them move from the bench unless we're up 20 or down 20 at the end.
This is a critical area, and what will make or break us. I think we can be a better team simply because we will be forced to have more balance. Too many times we seemed to settle into the "JJ and E`Twaun will save us" mode. Remember, we were leading VCU early with both struggling, so most of us assumed once they started going it would be over. JJ was as regular as the tides all season, but E`Twaun was unexpectedly up (38 points vs. OSU) and down (The NCAA Tournament).
Remember, 38.5 points is what we must replace offensively. Here is how we can get there:
Rob: 15.7 points
Ryno & LewJack: 4 point improvement combined from this year
Carroll: 2 point improvement
Barlow: 1 point improvement
TJ: 3 point improvement
DJ: 2 point improvement
That equals a near 28 point pickup from last year. Can the Question Mark guys add an additional 10? Absolutely! Remember, it is all about achieving balance and having every player on the floor at a given moment being a threat to score. We can have that with this lineup. Rebounding should go up with Hummel, Carroll, Hale, and Marcius/Lawson/Bade playing closer to the basket than JJ did. A motivated GDB can average five boards a game easily.
We're going to be forced to be a team in the true sense of the word more than ever. Fortunately, we thrive when that happens. We played out best this year not when JJ and E`Twaun were dropping 50, but when LewJack was a scoring threat, Ryno was hitting three, TJ was scoring, GDB was providing highlight plays and lockdown D, and Byrd was hitting in addition to JJ and E`Twaun doing their thing.
We won't have a true space-eating center, but even JJ was more of a roving forward than a center. Losing him can be replaced with Lawson/Bade/Carroll/Marcius being more power forward types and allowing Hummel/Hale/Byrd to be dominant small forwards. Do you see the mismatches that creates? It create more than we had at any point his year. Add to that the fact that TJ, LewJack, Ryno, AJ, and hart can be the perimeter guards with Barlow as the tweener and suddenly we have a lot of good options. Rob, lewJack, and Ryno merely need to step up, be on the court leaders, and help everyone mesh.
We should have a good non-conference schedule that is challenging, but not overwhelmingly tough. The Puerto Rico tipoff is a good field with NIT champ Wichita State, NIT runner-up Alabama, Colorado, Iona, Temple, Maryland, and Mystery Team X. Those are solid teams, but we're probably the favorite there.
We also know there will be a home game against West Virginia and a game at Conseco against Butler. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge game will likely be on the road again, but it is a full 12 on 12 with Nebraska joining. I can see us playing at Florida State, Clemson, or maybe even Miami on the way back from Puerto Rico.
The rest of our non-conference schedule will likely be littered with Directional State U. and in-state schools. I don't mind that at all. We're guaranteed at least four major conference opponents plus Butler. To me, that is perfect.
Then you have the Big Ten. Why can we be a contender again? Because everyone else loses a lot. Ohio State loses three key players and maybe four if William Buford declares for the NBA. They will still be very good because of Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, and another great recruiting class, but they won't be the juggernaut of this year.
Illinois loses a lot of a senior leadership. Michigan State underachieved greatly and they lose a lot. Minnesota was a hot mess after Al Nolen went down and they won't get better by losing Blake Hoffarber. Penn State might have me starting for them next year after losing a great senior class plus a couple of transfers. Wisconsin loses Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor (maybe to the Draft), but Bo Ryan will have another tough team that defends the Kohl Center like a nun's purity. Northwestern is still Northwestern and still has Bill Carmody. That screams NIT ceiling, but they will be dangerous. Nebraska basketball is a solid team that can be dangerous, but they have never won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Think Northwestern, only they can make the dance on occasion.
Michigan and Iowa are the teams I see taking a big step forward, especially a Michigan team that really put it together this past season. Finally, there is Indiana. They get one savior (Cody Zeller) and one oft-injured player (Maurice Creek), but they still have just three wins in three years away from Assembly Hall, and only one as a true road game. Let's win a game or two away from home before we declare a return to glory. They'll be better, but I think they'll have to wait another year before truly making a jump.
If the Big Ten as a whole is going to take a step back, but we have the pieces that can step up and contribute to keep our scoring at the same level is it really that much of a stretch to think we can't be a top 20-15 team again? If we can start playing with the defensive intensity that defines Purdue basketball (which absolutely did not happen vs. VCU, MSU, and Iowa) we can even take a step back in scoring and still be fine. As I always say, it is easy to win when you hold teams in the 60's, because then you only need to score 70, which any major college basketball team should be able to easily do. Butler's problem last night wasn't its defense. They played well enough to win on that end. It was an atrocious night shooting that killed them.
Yes, there will be growing pains, but that is what the non-conference is for. As I pointed out above, that will be challenging without being too challenging. The Big Ten won't be overwhelming, and multiple teams have proven they can make a Final Four just by getting in the tournament. All we have to do is time our run for March instead of February like this year.
I am reminded of my junior year of high school. We lost two players, Lee Coomler and Brian McCauley, who were the bulk of our scoring on a team that was 24-2 and #1 in the state for much of the year in 1996, but we were upset in the Sweet 16 by Ft. Wayne Dwenger. I thought we missed our chance at state, but a more diverse scoring team came back the next year, went 23-5, and made it to the Final Four.
To me, the goals don't change. We can still win the Big Ten, and we can still have Drew Brees giving a pre-game pep-talk to us in New Orleans before the Final Four.