Purdue At Northwestern: A Crossroads Game For Boiler Basketball

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue needs to shake off the beatdown handed out by Indiana in a hurry.

No one wearing gold and black is happy about Wednesday night. The worst home loss in the 100+ year history is bad enough. That it came at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers only makes it worse.

As a result, there are a lot of questions being thrown around. For the first time, coach Matt Painter is starting to hear grumbling from a fanbase that not long ago was enraptured with the way he rebuilt the program from the Gene Keady doldrums. He has been questions about past recruiting issues before this, but now the dreaded, "Is he a good coach and was this his fault" is being thrown around.

Really, Wednesday was a perfect storm of suck. Indiana came in motivated to play on a rival's floor and they are an extremely talented team. They played at a high level Purdue could only match for about the first eight minutes of each half. The rest of the time they ran circles around the Boilers. It was an ass-kicking, plain and simple. The blame is on everyone.

Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd, two of the elder leaders on this team, were virtual no-shows. Purdue had 18 turnovers, many of them of the godawful variety. Indiana killed Purdue on the fast break and got to long rebounds of their few missed threes with ease. The players themselves seemed to have no energy outside of A.J. Hammons. Part of that lies at Painter's feet, but the players themselves still have to execute the plan.

With coach Painter you're looking at a man who has coached teams to the NCAA Tournament in seven of his first eight years as a head coach, won two conference titles (one at each school), come within a game of two more, and by the end of the season will have over 200 wins in just nine seasons against less than 100 defeats. This, my friends, is called the benefit of the doubt. He is one of five active coaches in the Big Ten with a Big Ten title (Izzo, Ryan, Beilein, and Matta are the other four) and one of four to win both a Big Ten regular season and tournament title.

The biggest knock on Painter has been his recruiting since the 2007 class. The 2008 class complimented them very well, but the 2009 class, who should be seniors right now, is a major reason Purdue is currently struggling. No one knew John Hart would transfer to IUPUI in what would have been his fifth year and have season making us wish he had stayed because we could use his shooting. Kelsey Barlow was a difference maker of a player, but removed himself from the team two years in a row, the second time permanently. Patrick Bade was a whiff.

His 2010 guys in Terone Johnson, Anthony Johnson, and Travis Carroll were highly regarded, but have not played to expectation, adding further issues. The 2011 guys of Jacob Lawson and Donnie Hale have been positives in spurts, but it is still early in their career. It looks like Painter got back on track with 2012 and 2013, but the next two classes must sustain that momentum.

This was far from the total rebuild Painter had to do in 2006-07. That team was barely competitive even against the bottom of the Big Ten. Right now, Purdue is 4-4 in the toughest Big Ten in years and has seen just one game in which it was totally dominated. It will take some time to erase the misses of 2008-11, but if that time is a 16-15 season where Purdue goes to the NIT and loses only one major player (Byrd) while gaining essentially four next season (Simpson, Scott, Smotherman, and Stephens) that is not a bad bottom, kids.

Yes, 97-60 to Indiana, even their best team in a quarter century, is embarrassing. Yes, there are clearly some issues with shooting, defense, and team cohesion, but I am still supportive of Painter. A major reason that I am supportive comes from his own words:

"We played selfish basketball and we got what we deserved."

"We have some very important staples of the game to understand or to fix in terms of playing hard and playing smart."

"You can argue (Indiana's) the best offensive team in the country and the last thing you want to do is turn the ball over or take a bad shot. It's always stressed going into games, and then it's all we do. It's very frustrating as a coach, but I obviously didn't get my point across."

That last quote is very telling. Painter takes it upon himself for not getting a point across. He was a hard-nosed player under Keady that knows what it takes to compete in this league. he wants to improve himself and knows that it will take work. It was Keady who said, "Don't get bitter, get better." Well, this is where Painter needs to get better, because these players can get better with him.

This one was on everyone, even Painter. He has earned the leeway to see where this grows, and if Purdue is still playing this poorly a year from now, then we should be concerned. There are only four teams in this conference that have made the NCAAs in each of the last six years and Purdue is one of them along with Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, so rebuilding happens.

In the end, this was one game. Yes, it was an awful one in a season where there have been many frustrating results, but it is still one game. There is still a third of the season to play and time to grow for a team that returns virtually intact next year. It will take a lot of hard work, which was noted by Alex Bozich in a Tweet before Wednesday's game on how much better physically Indiana looked even in warmups compared to Purdue:

Maybe that is the next step of the evolution of Painter as a coach. Maybe he embraces a new philosophy of getting his guys in better physical shape so they can make a difference that way. Maybe he spends the summer seeking another mentor. I don't know. I do know that he too seeks to get better instead of bitter, because that is what he did as a player.

Tomorrow at Northwestern is merely the first chance to see if everyone involved will get bitter and fold, or get better.

Northwestern Wildcats

Location: Evanston, IL

2011-12 record: 19-14, 8-10 Big Ten

2012-13 Record: 12-10, 3-6 Big Ten

RPI: 84

2012 Postseason: Lost to Washington 76-55 in NIT 2nd Round

Blog Representation: Sippin' On Purple

Series With Purdue: Purdue Leads 122-43

Last Purdue win: 87-77 at Purdue on 2/12/2012 (Purdue has won four straight)

Last Northwestern win: 72-64 at Northwestern on 1-16-2010

Time: Noon

TV: ESPN2

Odds: No Line Yet

This is probably the golden age of Northwestern men's basketball with a record four straight NIT appearances. They have come agonizingly close to reaching the NCAAs only to fall a game or two short in each of the last three years. This year is actually a step back, as they lost Drew Crawford and JerShon Cobb as their best two players long before Big Ten play and they now find themselves struggling to hang on to a .500 record overall.

There have been some good moments. Winning at Baylor by four was nice, as was winning at rival Illinois and beating Minnesota at home, but there were also losses to Illinois-Chicago, Nebraska, and Stanford. It looks as if the Big Ten attrition has caught up to a team that is already a little short-handed.

This is a typical Carmody-coached team that plays a good 1-3-1, but not enough. Their Princeton offense will test a Purdue team that struggles to rotate to the ball and defend the backdoor cuts. Reggie Hearn (13.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Dave Sobolewski (11.2 ppg, 4.2 APG) lead the way for an offense that is about as far from Indiana's as possible. The Wildcats only score 63.4 points per game compared to Indiana's 84. They do share the basketball extremely well, however, so there are some similar characteristics.

As usual, Northewestern is a very poor rebounding team, so Purdue should have an edge there. Jared Swopshire has been a nice addition from Louisville that has come on strong in Big Ten play. He had 16 points and 8 rebounds against Minnesota as a 6'8" 210 pound forward.

A.J. Hammons will be tested against Alex Olah, whom I saw play against Jay Simpson and Rapheal Davis last season in Indy. Olah is only averaging 6 points and four rebounds, but at 7' 275 pounds he can definitely match Hammons' physicality. He fills Northwestern's traditional large, Eastern European forward role.

Much of the offense will go through Swopshire, Hearn, and Sobolewski. As usual, Northwestern takes a lot of threes, and they shoot 35% as a team. About 41% of their field goal attempts come from long range, with Sobolewski, Hearn, Swopshire, and Kale Abrahamson leading the way. Even Olah has 10 attempts from long range with three makes.

Really, much of what Purdue did not do defensively on Wednesday needs to be done in order to beat Northwestern. Purdue must defend the perimeter, rotate well on the ball, and watch the backdoor pass on drives to the basket. There will be opportunities to score when Northwestern is not in the 1-3-1, but Ronnie Johnson has to handle that unorthodox defense well.

Sigh with relief because of a win if:

  • Purdue defends the perimeter
  • Northwestern is cold from outside
  • Purdue wins the glass
  • Purdue controls its turnovers
  • Hammons stays out of foul trouble

Get bitter instead of better if:

  • Northwestern hits a ton of threes
  • Backdoor lanes stay wide open
  • TJ and DJ no-show again
  • Hammons gets in foul trouble
  • Purdue gets out-rebounded

Prediction: Purdue 63, Northwestern 58

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