Tonight I took a trip back to 1865. After working hard on this site and seeing two frustrating basketball games I had to step away for a moment, so I went to see Lincoln. This relates to Purdue basketball right now because I feel we all need to step away for a moment.
The Next Step has played only 165 minutes of basketball so far. Yes, they are 1-3, but they have lost to teams that a combined 9-2. Bucknell is 3-0 and is a very experienced team that won 25 games a year and not only will be a threat to make the NCAA Tournament, but will be a threat to advance. Villanova lost to Alabama tonight, but will still threaten for an NCAA Tournament bid. Oregon State is also a possible NCAA Tournament team.
Meanwhile, Purdue is still extremely young. You have five freshman playing major minutes all while coach Painter is trying to settle on a rotation. Issues that we thought would be trouble spots (namely free throw shooting) are exactly what we thought they were. In fact, you could argue that improved free throw shooting would have us at 4-0 right now.
It is frustrating, but there is absolutely no need to panic because there are still roughly 30 games to go in the regular season. If Purdue goes a reasonable 20-10 in those games it will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Let's look at each loss individually:
Bucknell - Purdue lost at home to a team with an NBA prospect at center, four starting seniors, and one that won 25 games ago and has been to three of the last seven NCAA Tournaments. This was not some flash in the pan low major. This is a legitimate team that not only has a recent history of making the NCAA Tournament, but of doing damage once there. They are likely to go again and there is not a team in the country that will say, "Yay! We have an easy game against Bucknell!" Purdue played without Terone Johnson, had those five freshmen playing their first college game against savvy seniors, and still had a chance to tie with its best three-point shooter.
The biggest issues were free throws (7 of 15 at home) and three point shooting (2 of 16). Purdue still led at halftime and the Bison quite frankly outplayed us to earn the win in the second half. This was a dangerous team to play for such a young team and Bucknell showed why.
Villanova - Even with more poor free throw shooting Purdue led by 8 with 1:14 to play and by four with the basketball with 45 seconds left. It was then that one horrendous call completely changed the game. Yes, things are different if Purdue shoots better from the line, but there is little argument that one call greatly benefitted Villanova while greatly hurting Purdue.
Oregon State - The Beavers didn't play well in the first half, but Purdue played far worse. It took a solid second half from A.J. Hammons to drag Purdue back into a tie with two minutes left, so even after 38 minutes of pretty crappy basketball Purdue was within a defensive stop and a basket of taking a lead and stealing a win. Again, poor free throw shooting doomed the Boilers.
None of these loses would be considered a bad loss by anyone who know college basketball beyond their own team. They are not going to be damaging as long as Purdue grows from these early pains and improves, which we know they are capable of doing.
That is really the key to the rest of Purdue's season: What will it learn from these early stumbles. There is more than enough opportunity ahead to still make the NCAA Tournament. As I said, none of these losses are bad losses. I figure that Purdue needs to reach 20 wins to reach the NCAA Tournament, which is usually the benchmark for a major conference team. The strength of the Big Ten will help in this.
Let's look at the schedule and see the road map to get there:
Games Purdue should win: UNC-Wilmington, Lamar, William & Mary, Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Penn State (x2), Nebraska - Any of these games would most definitely fall under the "Bad loss" banner. These eight games are ones that even an up and down Purdue team like this one should be able to win on talent alone, and they will build confidence for a young team.
Games Purdue should be favored in, but are far from automatic: Clemson, West Virginia, Illinois (x2), Northwestern (x2) - Here are six more games, getting us to 15 victories. These are games I think Purdue wins if they take these early struggles and grow from them. If these turn into losses it is probably a bad sign. If they become wins, it means there is improvement. I'd like to see us got 5-1 in these six games, and any loss wouldn't be horrible. This gets us to 14 victories.
True toss-up games: Xavier, Iowa (x2), Wisconsin, Minnesota, Notre Dame- These are probably the games that will decide if Purdue is truly going to contend for an NCAA berth. If we're giving the Boilers all but one of the previously listed games they likely must go at least 4-2 in these games, getting us to 18 wins. With every game at this level or below I don't think a Purdue win is completely out of the question.
True underdog games: Michigan State (x2), Ohio State, Michigan (x2), Indiana (x2) - This includes five games against current top 5 teams, which would be a pretty massive upset right now. Fortunately, they are way downt he road after the team has more time to gel, mature, and develop a rotation. I feel Purdue can be an NCAA team if it wins every single game below this tier, but pulling one of these games out would help greatly. Two would help even more.
Of the 165 minutes Purdue has played we can throw out 40 minutes against a completely overmatched Hofstra team. Of the remaining 125 minutes Purdue has played solid basketball for about half of that. In that half, we have seen some very good things:
- A.J. Hammons can be an offensive force when he gets on a roll.
- Anthony Johnson can be a dynamic scorer and distributor.
- D.J. Byrd is still a dead, in rhythm shooter.
- Ronnie Johnson can be dangerous when he looks to attack.
- Donne Hale, Jacob Lawson, and Hammons can be very good at getting garbage baskets on the offensive glass.
- Lawson especially is much more aggressive and athletic than last year. I like his moxie.
- We can rebound when we choose to.
- Terone Johnson can get on a roll as we saw at times last season.
- Even Travis Carroll took over a very short segment of the Villanova game.
So far there have been some flashes of a very good basketball team. The problem is that Purdue has been unable to sustain those flashes and the competition hey have faced has been too experienced to let us survive the parts where we can't sustain those flashes. We're still waiting for Purdue to put it all together.
The UNC-Wilmington game will help. If Purdue loses that we're in deep trouble. After that we have another critical stretch at Clemson and at home against Xavier. Clemson will be the next test to see how much Purdue has grown. Then we get a Xavier team at home that is probably better than a lot of people thought judging by how they dismantled Butler. Purdue has to get at least one of those games. Getting both would help even more, because then Purdue is likely 6-3 before facing Notre Dame.
We knew that there would need to be patience with this team, but we're frustrated because we're right in that regard. I know I was hoping for a Baby Boilers 2.0 scenario where they come in and meld together immediately. Well, it is going to be a little harder this time around. We can see that the pieces are there, but the puzzle is not quite as clear as it was in 2007-08. Fortunately, we have Matt Painter figuring it out.
So relax. Let's give this a little time and let's just see what develops. Yes, 1-3 looks pretty ugly, but we've been in every game and are one horrific call and a bunch of missed free throws from being 4-0. Right now it is on the players to buy into what the coaches are teaching and grow. it is quite apparent that the talent is there, but they must be willing to learn and move on from these early struggles.
We can work with this, and I am fine with that.