Purdue Basketball: Something's Gotta Change

Andy Lyons

Seven games into the season, the improvement many expected from Purdue has been quite absent.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Purdue basketball, with a team full of youth and potential, was supposed to give Purdue fans something to look forward to, some reason to be excited about their Boilermakers after a historically miserable football season.

Instead, it's not even December yet and Purdue fans are already feeling like this team - despite its high roster turnover - isn't too different from last year's 15-17 team that couldn't even make the NIT.

Yes, the Boilers stand at 5-2, but after playing two miserable halves out of their last four, resulting in losses to Oklahoma State and a sub-par Washington State team, combined with earlier wins against teams like Northern Kentucky, Rider, and Siena by a combined 13 points, it's clear something (or some things) aren't right with this team.

Unfortunately many of the on-court problems that haunted Purdue last season don't seem to be resolved.

This team was supposed to be more mature than last year's team, yet Purdue finished the Oklahoma State game with Jay Simpson in the locker room and Ronnie Johnson on the end of the bench, victims of their own foolishness after being goaded into bad decisions by the Cowboys.

Staying on the younger Johnson, Painter is clearly frustrated by his play. He spoke in yesterday's postgame press conference about how Ronnie doesn't quite understand how leadership plays into his role on this team. Again, like last year, if your leaders have to be told that they are leaders and that you need them to lead, there's bigger problems there.

Another, more tangible problem with RJ is that he still can't seem to find that delicate balance between getting himself going offensively and getting his teammates going. Both Ronnie and his brother Terone haven't quite seemed to grasp that this year's team has more offensive weapons than last year's, so they don't have to do it all themselves. Both continue to force the issue offensively with only a slight improvement in shot selection from last year.

Bryson Scott has been impressive off the bench for the Boilers - I wouldn't be surprised to see him start Sunday - but for as many great plays as he makes, he makes just as many frustrating ones doing the same drive-and-force show the Johnson brothers like to put on.

As it stands, Purdue doesn't have a pass-first point guard seeing minutes. I'm not one to say these guys need to be told to stop taking the floater or anything that extreme. Rather, they just need the awareness to pass it off - either to a big man inside or to a spotted-up shooter outside - when the defenders collapse on them when driving. Watch most of the elite teams in the nation and this is what you see happening. Heck, watch any of the teams competing with the elite teams and that's what you see.

This season we were supposed to see a more focused, hungry A.J. Hammons. Instead he's already missed a regular-season game due to suspension and when he has played he's been only slightly better than last season defensively. Offensively he's still a complete wildcard. He's frustrating many fans - and likely his coaches as well - because the potential is so clearly there, yet on the few occasions he does get the ball he looks paranoid, often over-thinking and turning the ball over.

Purdue seemed to finally figure out Yesterday that both he and Simpson need shorter runs to be effective, and the coaches were doing a good job for the first 30 minutes of the game in rotating the centers often, keeping both fairly fresh. As the clock wound down, however, the rotations stopped and we went back to seeing Hammons doing a lot of standing, especially on defense.

The guy many Purdue fans spend the preseason worrying they'd only have for one more year is playing like someone who will be at Purdue for at least four seasons. I'm not saying he can't be drafted, the NBA does commonly draft bigs on pure potential, but that's the only reason he'd be drafted at this point. Potential.

The final piece of Purdue's sophomore class that much of Purdue's predicted improvement this season hinged on is Raphael Davis, who has been lackluster at best this season. He's simply not producing offensively at all when he comes in. He looks like instead of trying to get in the flow of the game, he comes off the bench thinking he needs to score immediately and often forces the issue when he tries.

Again, like with Terone and Ronnie, it almost seems as if he doesn't realize that unlike last year this year's team doesn't - or shouldn't, at least - need one man to put on a cape and be a hero, taking on the other team by himself.

Purdue had almost twice as many turnovers as it did assists yesterday, perfectly illustrating what's gone wrong with it's offense. Again, Washington State is not a good team, yet Purdue allowed it to shoot nearly 66 percent from the field and only outrebounded the Cougars by one. FYI, a bit about Washington State:

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This isn't entirely on the Purdue players though - and this is why I was hesitant to write this. I've been a Matt Painter supporter all along, and I continue to support him. People that say things like "he lost his competitive juices when he got his big contract" are hard for me to take seriously. He's not above blame here, however.

The fact is Painter has built his program around being a great defensive team. This isn't even a good defensive team, nor have the Boilers been in more than a year. Right now Purdue is 221st in the country in scoring defense and 102nd in the nation in defensive FG percentage. Last year Purdue finished in the 120s in scoring defense.

Teams with less athleticism, less quickness than Purdue routinely defend the perimeter better than the Boilers. Purdue, far too often, simply gets beat off the dribble and then usually fouls or gets scored on. In the post, the result isn't much, though the means to the end are.

Jordan Railey - a guy whose career-high was five points before yesterday - scored a career-high 13 points against A.J. Hammons yesterday.

Painter is free to emphasize defense if that's what he feels gives his team its best chance to win (as many commentators will tell you, he gets paid millions annually to make these decisions). The fact is, however, for all the time the Boilers put into defense, the results simply aren't there.

Painter has said he doesn't want to play more than one defense because for every minute you spend working on a secondary defense, that's one minute you don't spend working on your primary defense. That's a fair point, but how bad would Purdue's defense be if they DIDN'T spend this much time on that one defense?

On the other end of the court, I've said for years Painter clearly doesn't have a mind for offense. That's not a knock, I truly appreciate his knack for defense. What I don't understand, however, is why he hasn't noticed this and negated it by hiring an offensive-minded assistant coach?

It's to the point now where Purdue knows any team that has considered playing a zone ever will play a zone against it, yet they still can't find a way to defeat the zone. The fact remains the Boilermaker offense hasn't been the same since Cuonzo Martin left for Missouri State.

Even against man-to-man defenses, it rarely seems like Purdue adjusts its offense to highlight the strengths of its roster or the weaknesses of the defense its facing.

Then again, maybe Painter and his staff are trying to do all these things and the players simply aren't listening/doing what is asked. That still falls, at least partially, on the coaches. If your messages continuously fall on deaf ears (and you just spent an offseason getting a half roster of new ears), at some point you have to adjust the way you deliver the message.

I'm not in any way trying to write off the rest of this season or anything like that. I just think before Purdue plays Siena (again) Sunday, the entire team and staff need to take a good, long look in the mirror. Can Purdue play the way it has so far this season and beat Siena for a second time? Absolutely. But there's a lot more "Michigan" and "Ohio State" -types left on its schedule than there are "Siena"-types.

Something's got to change, and hopefully we'll see that change start to take place tomorrow evening.

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