It took approximately five minutes last night, which was four minutes long than I thought it would take, for the first round of mockery to come through about Purdue losing before the Final Four of even the lowly CBI. The 86-83 loss to Santa Clara euthanized a season that was merely on life support hoping to scratch above .500 and even reach 20 wins by winning a postseason tournament. Even though banners are hung down south for the always memorable National Commissioners Invitational Tournament, the mocking about a banner for the CBI was replaced with mocking about how Purdue can't even make a CBI Final Four.
That mocking was deserved too. I made a wild prediction of 21-23 wins in the preseason and solid NCAA Tournament bid. Instead, Purdue went 16-18, lost in the CBI quarterfinals, and seems to have more questions than answers.
I have stated before that this team is not that far off. Losses to Bucknell, Villanova, Xavier, Oregon State, and Eastern Michigan were all non-conference losses that could have been wins if you change a handful of possessions. This extremely young team probably even wins most of those if it plays with the maturity it showed at times (emphasis mine) late in the year. Purdue was also close against Michigan at home and had a couple bad Big Ten losses to Nebraska and Northwestern. That's eight games that basically decided the season and were the difference between the CBI and the NCAAs.
What Purdue lacked most was consistency in almost every aspect of the game. For stretches, especially late in the season, the Purdue defense was causing havoc and creating offense from turnovers. it was the defense we have come to know and love. At other times there were downright lazy defensive possessions and a clear lack of effort on both ends of the floor.
Shooting was inconsistent at best and you saw it from the two CBI games. Against Western Illinois Purdue was 7 of 11 from long range with four different players connecting on at least one three and 12 of 13 at the free throw line. Just days later that dipped to 1 of 9 and 22 of 28.
Many of the numbers we saw show that the talent is there. There is very little question that Purdue has talented players. What they lack is cohesion and consistency to turn into winners. I don't know where that missing piece is going to come from, but every single returning player has something to work on even before the parts can come together as a whole. So, as we say goodbye to Dru Anthrop and D.J. Byrd, thanking them for their contributions, we look ahead to 2013-14 and how the Boilers can rightfully return to the upper half of the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament.
Ronnie Johnson - PG - Ronnie fought his ass off last night for 27 points and six assists. Of the four freshmen that played, he made the biggest strides from the start of the season to the end. His jumper simply looked ugly for long stretches of the season, but it looked much better from about mid-February onward. Ronnie did not shoot better than 50% from the field in a game until going 7 of 12 against Penn State on February 5th. He had a career high 16 in that game and shot the ball much better the rest of the way. He was 50 of 115 after that Penn State game, good for 43%. Before that he was 68 of 211 for 32.3%. That's some significant improvement.
In later games Ronnie's ability to hit the mid-range jumper between 15 and 18 feet, not a floater, greatly improved Purdue's offense. His three-point shooting needs the most improvement, going 6 of 36 for the year. If other guys develop he doesn't need to take a bunch of threes, however. Like LewJack before him, he only needs to hit the occasional one to keep defenses honest. Ronnie's game is to score like he is now and distribute, not become a gunner. Ronnie is a good player. Now he needs to work over the summer to keep up the consistency he showed late in the season and have the fire to lead the team.
Terone Johnson - SG - Terone had some very telling remarks last night about getting back to Purdue basketball and some people taking advantage of the system last night. Well, he is a senior now. It is time for him to lead by example and make sure this team gets back to playing Purdue basketball in all aspects.
We know what we're getting from him as a player. We're getting a scorer that can be frustrating at times and the new Red Button at others. Like everyone else, he needs to develop consistency into being that Red Button more often. TJ is a rhythm shooter and his three-point shooting has improved from 29.3% as a freshman to 34.6% as a junior. The free throw shooting, a dismal 43.5% last year, also improved to a merely bad 62.3%.
TJ has to become more patient about getting to the line and hitting them once there. His driving ability can result in foul calls, but sometimes he shied away from contact by expecting it and trying a circus shot rather than taking it strong and getting the contact. We need the Terone that dropped 32 on Michigan, not the one that disappeared and was scoreless two games earlier at Iowa. Consistency and leadership are what I look for out of him most.
Rapheal Davis - SF - Ray D. showed a ton of promise late in the year, but like so many others, just was not consistent. With Byrd being the main three-point shooter Rapheal became a three-point shooter of opportunity. He often had that corner three available, so now is the time to get in the gym and knock it down with regularity. He had 18 vs. Minnesota and none last night. Those disappearing acts have to end, because when you see the light go on for him he is a different type of player.
Ray D. finished 10 of 33 from long range this year, making him Purdue's No. 3 player in terms of made threes. Seven of his made threes came after the first Nebraska game, however, when he started to play a larger role in the offense. Like the two players above, he needs to work on his perimeter defense. Ray, TJ, and Ronnie could be three nasty perimeter defenders with Hammons and Simpson protecting the rim behind them. Fortunately, we know he is a hard worker. I have no doubt we'll see great improvement from him.
Donnie Hale - PF - I know I am in the minority here, but I think Hale has some potential to play a similar, but obviously not exactly the same role, as Robbie Hummel. Again, he has to be more consistent and show he wants to have the role at the four spot. Hale can rebound. He has a mid-range jumper. He even hit a three against WIU reminding us he was a descent three point shooter in high school. He lacks Robbie's passing skills and motor, but he can be a somewhat similar shooter and rebounder. If Hale could become a guy that just steps out for one or two three attempts per game it can open up a lot of things.
Hale has to prove he wants it though. The four is our shakiest position. Even with a wealth of post players this season coach Painter still went with a four-guard lineup too often. We will see it more next year if someone doesn't step up and seize this spot.
Sandi Marcius - C - Yes, The Chooch should be starting. I don't think it is even an argument right now. Hammons has more talent, but he needs a fire lit underneath him and has to find a way to play with the intensity Chooch does. It is a joy to watch this sudden improvement in a guy many have written off for so long. He scored a career high 96 points this season, but 67 came after February 9th against Michigan State. That was more six points per game over the final 11 games after less than two for his entire career to that point. Hell, the Chooch had only 89 points in almost 80 career games before this run.
Just six weeks ago people wanted the Chooch to transfer for his final year so mystery player X could come in as the savior. Now he could be the starter and key to reviving the fading hope of Hammons. Chooch is hardly flashy, but he plays his ass off, is big, and not afraid to attack the basket with his new found confidence. Now it is time for him to work on free throw shooting and finishing with contact.
A.J. Hammons - For now, Hammons needs to earn his starting spot back, and Coach Painter should tell him it belongs to the Chooch until he earns it back. We saw exactly how dominant and unstoppable Hammons is when it is turned on. Against IU, where he scored 30, he was feeling it and even urging the crowd on down big in the second half. Then you have a game like last night where he had a physical advantage on both ends of the floor and did virtually nothing.
The coaching staff and Hammons himself have to find away to keep that light that was on against Indiana all the time. He can be a scary, dominant player when that happens. When it's not on, he takes possessions off, shoots fadeaways, and is not active at all on defense, and refuses to rebound. The best case scenario is that he becomes dominant, wins B1G player of the year and helps Purdue to a conference title as everything falls into place behind him. He then heads off to the NBA two years early. His worst case is Marcius starting all year and us wondering if we'll ever see that potential he showed again.
Anthony Johnson - I don't know if any player received more criticism than little AJ all year long. He finished as probably the best free throw shooter on the team, but often turned the ball over and took dumb shots. The thing with him is that we have slasher/scorers in RJ, TJ, and Ray D. Bryson Scott will fill that role as well. Little AJ needs to get in the gym and start hoisting jumpers. He needs to find a role and the role of three-point sniper is more than available.
Travis Carroll - I am not sure what to think of Travis. His career has spanned from "Promising backup to JJ" to "He's uncoordinated and slow" to "He not athletic, but works hard and sets a good example." Among Purdue's players with at least 40 field goal attempts (there were 10 such players) it was Carroll who shot the best percentage at 62.5%. Some came on the screen and roll when we chose to look for him, others on the more than decent mid-range jumper.
Unfortunately, he often played at the five where he simply got beat up by bigger, stronger players. I never thought I would say this, but we Travis needs to take those shooting talents and develop them into an offense first weapon. He needs to play at the four where his defensive struggles in the post can be covered up and where he is free to shoot on the perimeter. Give him a three-point attempt or two per game like Hale. I'd he shows early he can hit them it again opens things up offensively because teams must respect it. I don't expect Travis to instantly average 12 per game and bomb away like Ryne Smith, but just show he can be an effective shooter when in the game.
Jay Simpson - Jay is still a bit of a mystery because you never know what you're going to get out of a player coming out of redshirt. I think he battles for the open four spot in a more conventional three guard, two forward offense. In the abbreviated look we got at him, mostly in New York, we saw that Jacob can be an effective rebounder and score around the rim, but again, he hasn't played for almost a year by the time he plays again. I want to see him become an effective, traditional pounder of a power forward that can also defend the rim. Let Hale and Carroll be the shooters at the four and Simpson be the bruiser.
Jacob Lawson - Of all the transfer rumors that are out there Lawson's make the most sense. He can leave without playing immediately as a graduate transfer (like Marcius) or losing a year of eligibility (like little AJ). He was clearly in Painter's doghouse and playing walk-on minutes until shockingly making a first half appearance last night.
I have no clue where Lawson fits in. He's a hell of an athlete and can be a great post defender, but after starting earlier in the season he ended with four straight DNP- Coaches Decisions before the CBI. If he stays, he simply needs to bust ass and prove he wants to play, or he won't.
Neal Beshears, Stephen Toyra John McKeeman - The new Walk-on Whiteout may never contribute in games much, but in practice they can have a huge role. These three guys need to just play every practice like game 7 of the NBA finals. Be annoying to the scholarship guys. Piss them off a bit. This team lacked fire at a lot of time and Painter needs to encourage these three to be irritants and try to light that fire. Show up a lazy scholarship guy by diving for a ball and firing it off of him out of bounds. Do all of the little things that just might relight the competitive fires and turn the practices back into the wars we heard about under Keady. Earn yourself some DEFENSE shorts, fellas.
Basil Smotherman, Bryson Scott, KendalL Stephens - The incoming freshmen are also wildcards, but after seeing Scott this year I have no doubt he won't tolerate laziness and entitlement above others. He's be the guy I'd be worried about if we hear of an upperclassman taking a swing at an overzealous freshman in practice. When I saw him both times and talked to him after the Kokomo game there is no doubt there is a barely controlled fire there. He reminded me a lot of Chris Kramer in terms of his attitude and work ethic. That is what needs to wear off.
Kendall needs to heal, plain and simple we need him to be a shooter. As for Basil, he needs to fill Kelsey Barlow's role and do it with his attitude tuned right all the time. He has the body-type to replicate Barlow in terms of being a defender and a slasher. His attitude is better too.
Coach Painter - I'm not letting coach Painter get away here, either. Something was just... off about him this year. I don't know if it was his quiet divorce getting to him or the frustrations of what worked before not working with this team of players. He wasn't the same, and people are turning on him as a result. I think maybe he needs to step away and refresh himself. Spend a week away from basketball entirely. Maybe two. Go to Fiji or something. I still believe in him 100% and feel the program is fine with him going forward. If the guys listen to him I have no doubt next year is an NCAA Tournament year. If another below .500 season happens, those voices calling for his head will get louder.
Clearly, there is a lot of sweat equity that needs to be put into this team, but the opportunity is there. Almost everyone ahead of Purdue in the Big Ten standings will lose someone to the NBA. Indiana will likely lose Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo in addition to Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. Ohio State is almost assuredly losing Deshaun Thomas. Michigan State will lose Derrick Nix and possibly Gary Harris. Michigan will lose Trey Burke and could lose a lot more. Illinois will lose Brandon Paul. Minnesota will lose Trevor Mbakwe. That's a lot of talent going away and even more can leave early for the NBA.
The opportunity is there. Today is day one of working to seize it.