Some of you readers don't follow the exploits of the football team as closely as I do. I know that this is Indiana, and that means there is a year-round obsession with basketball. Well, if that is your thing, then the good news is that we're only 58 days away from the start of the 2011-12 basketball season. This is not totally writing of football yet, but we need some good news around here. For football the only way the team will have success is with growth and taking one game at a time. Right now we're about as low as we have been since the Coletto era, but as a pick-me-up, we need to talk basketball. We even get to start the player countdown this Friday with Sandi Marcius leading things off since it will be 55 days until the November 11th opener against NIU.
Last year at this time hopes were as high as I could ever remember them. A National Championship seemed like a real possibility. If anything, the result of the 2010-11 season made me even more angry and showed how much winning the title relies on luck. Until the final five games, we played like one of the best teams in the country. If the team that beat Ohio State plays against either UConn or Butler in the title game we win by 15.
But I digress. A new season is here and three players are gone from a team that looked like world beaters until the season's most critical time. Bubba Day, as much as we love him, didn't contribute a ton on the court. Losing E`Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson does not make a team better, however. Without them we lose 38.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.8 blocks and 2.1 steals per game. Big numbers, for sure, but it is hardly a reason to panic.
A lot of the mainstream media is already writing us off because we lost two NBA players. They assume that JJ and Smooge were all we ever had at any time, and therefore we'll be lucky to make the NCAA Tournament. They're also lazy and full of shit.
The 2011-12 Boilermakers will be a different type of team, and that difference doesn't necessarily mean they will be awful. We still have a lot of weapons coming back. We still have Matt Painter. We still have an excellent home court advantage that made the entire Big Ten wilt last season.
So, as a primer for the upcoming season and to give us some good news, here are the top 10 reasons we can still be a top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and a top three team in the Big Ten.
1. Robbie Hummel is back - I know it feel like we have to pray/sacrifice to our deity of choice to get him back on the court, but the one time possible role player by the time he was a senior is healthy and will be back in the lineup. Really, he has to be, right? He can't possibly have the awful luck of yet another injury, right?
Hummel's numbers before February 24, 2010 give me reason for encouragement. He was averaging 15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. Compared to what we lost, that's damn near half made up if he doesn't improve one bit. His averages have improved in every year of his career too. I don't think 18 points and eight rebounds per game is outside the realm of possibility. If you think of him as a one and done guy it means we have already replaced half of what we lost. That's a big first step.
Plus, Rob is a warrior on the court. He will not let his career go down without a fight. We saw how much it physically pained him to lose in Chicago last year. Now he can make a difference. With the collective will of a fanbase cheering for him to have a healthy season he can have a special year.
2. Matt Painter is back - After the NCAA Tournament coach Painter scared the bejesus out of us by toying with the University of Missouri. How bad was it? Well, over the summer this site averaged about a quarter million page views per month. Solid numbers, but in March, with the five days or so that he was possibly leaving, there were over 150,000 more views as we all collectively freaked out. From March 27th through March 30th (otherwise known as four days of us collectively losing our shit) there were over 3,000 comments on those various posts.
It's pretty safe to say that Painter means a lot to this university, and what he started building with the 2007 class needs a solid bridge year to what he will continue building with the 2012 class. If we can get Gary Harris or(and?) A.J. Hammons on board this coming season will be an important bridge, especially for players like Kelsey Barlow, Terone Johnson, and D.J. Byrd who will be the upperclassman leaders for the 2012 and 2013 guys. Painter is building something, and he knows that this season is far from a lost cause as we wait for the future.
With Painter you know what you're going to get too: a team with multiple offensive weapons that plays team-oriented, cohesive basketball and tenacious defense. Call me crazy, but I think we can be better simply because we have to play total team basketball now. Purdue's best teams are like that. Without JJ and Smooge there to bail us out we'll work that much harder to find the open man, make the extra screen, and rotate the ball one more time. the NCAA Tourney games against Florida (2007) and Duke (2010) are examples of us dragging a superior-talented team into basketball purgatory with our style. Let's do it again.
3. Everyone else loses a lot - As mentioned above, we lose JJ and Smooge, but statistically know that half of their production will likely be replicated. Other teams in the conference can't say the same. Last year's Big Ten was known for the staggering amount of upper class talent that was returning. Well, most of that is gone now. Penn State, and NCAA Tournament team, lost so much their coach bailed for freakin' Navy. Ohio State has Jared Sullinger returning, but losing Dallas Lauderdale, Jon Diebler, and David Lighty severely cuts in on their rotation.
Other teams face attrition too. Michigan would be much better if Darius Morris returned. Illinois recruits well, but lost a ton of seniors. The same is true with Michigan State where Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas are gone. We're far from the only team in the league that faces questions about how we're going to replace what we lost. In fact, if you sub Rob in for one of our losses you'll find we have a lot less to replace than some others.
4. The schedule will let this team grow - If you look at our very early home schedule you'll see that very little stands out. Julian Gamble, a 6'9" that was set for a big season for the Miami Hurricanes, already tore his ACL and improves our odds in what should be our toughest non-conference home game. None of the teams in Puerto Rico scare me before what should be a good final against Wichita State or Alabama. The one road trip, to Xavier, is just about the perfect test away from home in the early season.
Then look at the Big Ten schedule. It is HUGE that we only get Wisconsin and Ohio State once, especially with no trip to Madison. The Badgers win in West Lafayette about as often as Abe Lincoln is revered in the Deep South. Only playing one of the other conference favorites once is big. The other one plays are Nebraska (middle of the pack at best) and Minnesota (up on the Demon Wood). I see no reason we can't go at least 8-1 at home again, if not better, and have a respectable 5-4 record on the road. Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, and Michigan don't have overwhelming home court advantages, and when we visit IU we should be playing for the honor of an undefeated career against the Hoosiers for Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson.
5. Senior leadership - Much is being made about out lack of depth in the post, but college basketball is all about guard play. Well, we have a pair of seniors in Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith that compliment each other well. LewJack has been growing his career for this season where he can be both a scorer and a distributor. As we saw last season, Ryno can just go mad bomber on teams for 20 points out of nowhere. Last year they combined for 14.2 points per game. I don't think 18 or more between them is too much.
6. Guard depth - Every guard on the roster brings strengths, and we'll probably be playing a three guard lineup for much of the year. Kelsey Barlow is a defensive ace and a slasher that can score the ball at the hole. TJ will take the next step toward becoming E'Twaun 2.0 this year. Anthony Johnson is a 4-star guard that comes in like a fresh new recruit after a year of practice and in the weight room. D.J. Byrd can play as more of a natural three both inside and out. Even John Hart, if he can get healthy, as shown spurtability.
7. The newcomers - We lost two guys, but in a way we get four. Jacob Lawson and Donnie Hale give us a couple more post players that are question marks, but they at least give us some options at the four. If Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius rotate as true fives then Hale/Lawson can allow us to go big by playing the four and let Robbie destroy teams as a three. Sure, this is me playing lineups in my head, but freshman are expected to come in and play immediately at Purdue. Lawson and Hale are no different, and AJ and Rob give us two more options we did not have last year.
8. The Hansons will grow - Patrick Bade is gone, but Carroll and Marcius are now up for the starting five position. They will not replace JJ, but they are different types of players than JJ. That's not a bad thing. JJ was often wondering well outside the post, and his rebounding suffered as a result. Marcius and Carroll won't do that. Carroll has a nice 15-footer to keep teams honest and should be bigger to battle on the low block. Marcius is big, but he needs more practice and repetition to develop a touch with the basketball. I like his little hook shot if he can start hitting it. It's very European, and now that this is year three for him in the program it is time for him to be an asset. I am not asking him to be a 15 and 10 guy, but if he can set screens, rebound, get a garbage basket or two, and generally be a mean big guy it will help a lot. At least he is not Matt ten Dam
9. This team the next step for the future - Remember how the Baby Boilers came in 2007-08 and immediately challenged for the Big Ten? That foundation was built the previous season when Carl Landry and David Teague took us back the NCAA's. Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant played a large role on that team and served as the bridge for the Baby Boilers. This team could be a lot like the 2006-07 team, only they begin in a much better place. Back then we had bottomed out with consecutive seasons of less than 10 wins. Now we're coming off of consecutive 25+ win seasons. Rob, LewJack, and Ryno won't get to play with the 2012 guys, but everyone else will, and they will have learned a lot of winning in that time. Think about these facts. Robbie Hummel is the only player on the current roster that has ever lost to IU. Most of the roster has at least one win in every Big Ten venue. Everyone on the roster has played in multiple NCAA tournament games except the freshmen. These guys have done a lot of winning in their careers already, and they will merely be the next level as we continue to build higher.
10. We're due - As I mentioned above, a lot of success in the NCAA Tournament especially is luck. Well, after having two Final Fours robbed of us by bad luck, we're due for some good luck, right? I am not saying we're definitely going to New Orleans, but wouldn't it be nice to get to the NCAAs as say a 4-seed, then we get a broken bracket where someone else knocks off the one and the two. What if a situation like 2000 happens where we get in as a strong six only to have our bracket completely open up for us? There are a lot of variables outside of our control that have gone against us the last two years (Rob's injury, Hart's injury, LewJack's injury, Barlow's suspension, an awful matchup against a hot VCU team). It's time for things to go our way for a change.