Every now and then a comment in the Open Threads catches my eye and, in a few words, seems to sum up what we're all thinking. Last night was one of those nights:
In 11 words, bukowski boiler summed up not just Purdue basketball this year, but the Big Ten as a whole. Even Penn State and Nebraska, who are lacking in talent compared to nearly every other team in the league, play up with a hand in your face and have improved as the season goes on. They may not be good, but dammit they fight hard. Last night Penn State was rewarded for its efforts with one of the more stunning upsets during a wild college basketball season.
Part of me wants to chastise Michigan because a team as good as them has no business losing to Penn State when they had to win out and claim at least a share of the Big Ten title. I thought the loss showed that they were simply not interested in winning the Big Ten. Instead Jermaine Marshall, Ross Travis, and D.J. Newbill went out and won the game. It was very impressive from a team that legitimately looked like it wouldn't win a game all season in conference.
What did Penn State have to play for? Nothing! They aren't going to the postseason unless they get inexplicably hot for four days in Chicago and steal the automatic bid. They keep fighting, however, and I am incredibly envious of their fight.
Immediately after, a Purdue team that still had an NIT bid was playing against an Iowa team it had already beaten. There was still something to play for, at least more than Penn State had, and the boilers continued to have a lazy defensive effort on the perimeter and poor shot selection. Unless D.J. Byrd is taking an NBA range three-pointer he seems to do very little on the court and there is not a single player I would trust to get a needed defensive stop.
Where is the heart? Where is that fire that made us all love Purdue basketball? This program is built on the motto of, "We may not be as talented, but you won't play harder than us." It used to be a point of pride to need a new pair of Defense shorts because you wore them out taking charges in practice. Now we have a team that loses assignments and regularly gives up wide open looks on the perimeter because it is so afraid of getting blown past defensively.
With everything that I have sent his year, the lack of effort has been the most disturbing. Even coach Painter's first Purdue team, which had far less talent than this one, played hard. Now we're getting outplayed by the likes of a Penn State team that plays in an empty building and was looking like the worst Big Ten team in history.
Who shoulders the blame? Matt Painter deserves some, because he is the coach and that is where the buck stops. He at least realizes (unlike a certain recent Purdue coach) that effort is an issue and part of the blame lies with him. He at least seems like he is trying to implement his schemes and the style of play we know and love. If the players don't follow direction, however, there is only so much he can do.
As for the players, we have seen in the past that one bad attitude can spoil the whole bunch. That is something that, unfortunately, cannot be fixed until the offseason. Byrd has not been the leader we all expected and urged him to be, and his body language on the court seems to be getting worse. There are rumors of potential transfers in the offseason (Jacob Lawson and Anthony Johnson I have heard multiple times) that could also be a factor. Is there a fractured locker room where not everyone is on the same page? it is hard to say, but it certainly looks like it.
If those are players that do leave it makes next season very interesting, given that Purdue would not have a junior class. Travis Carroll, Sandi Marcius, and Terone Johnson would be your three seniors with not juniors at all. It would create a dynamic shift of responsibility to this year's freshmen. Either you can handle that, like Kramer and Hummel did, or you can't.
To me, the one main ingredient this team lacks is heart. I have seen talent from every single player on the roster. What I have not seen is that leader that refines that talent through leadership and heart. This team looks lost, so there needs to be an audition for a leader next year. I don't know who that missing piece will be, but he will be the difference between another lost season and Purdue basketball getting back on track.
The 2012 class is very talented. The 2013 class looks like it has that missing heart, from what I have seen. They are the building blocks of a rebuilding period that needs to show progress next year. That makes the currently empty 2014 class even more important, especially if there is no junior class next season. It is on Painter to hit on the next two years of recruiting to erase the misses of some of the previous classes. The current freshmen, the incoming freshmen, and the 2014 and 2015 classes are the bright light we're looking to now, and it starts next year when The Next Step, as I called the seven players of the 2012 and 2013 classes, is fully formed.
Or, it is all Gene Keady's fault, because the team lost his toughness around the time he lost the combover. He needs to grow it back and dye it black.