Last night was rough. After a long and ultimately disappointing basketball season Purdue came out and was dominating the team on top of the Big Ten standing. The first 12 minutes, when the Boilers opened up a 27-8 lead, may have been the best stretch of basketball Purdue has played all season.
That is where the frustration comes in. Michigan is on its way to a second Big Ten championship in the last three years. Last season, when they came within a missed layup of winning the Big Ten, they played for a national championship. For all Purdue has been through, the Boilers were on a roll and dominating an excellent team. They were also doing this with just nine scholarship players, as Jay Simpson and Sterling Carter were out with injuries. If Purdue has a lot more moments this season like those first 12 minutes then it is an NCAA Tournament team.
Unfortunately, the second half was a lot more like Purdue has played all season. Purdue could not handle success and fell on a last second shot in overtime by Glenn Robinson III. Even in a loss, was it a turning point? People were satisfied because the effort, which has been lacking from many players, was there. Players like Rapheal Davis and Travis Carroll did not fill the box score, but they were doing all the Little Things that we have missed. Those Little Things are the soul of Purdue basketball, and that soul has been missing.
In the post-Hummel era Purdue has played 62 basketball games. Its record is 31-31 after last night. Purdue is 2-14 against ranked opponents in that time, beating only Wisconsin at Wisconsin and Illinois at home, both last season. It is in this era that coach Painter is being scrutinized, mostly because he is on his second straight top 20 recruiting class and we are impatient people as fans.
The state of Purdue basketball is not a happy one right now. I am one of many that expected a lot more from this season, but even with a better record on paper it feels like a step back. This should have been an NCAA Tournament team if it takes a step forward from last year. Last season, Purdue was 16-18 and 8-10 in the Big Ten. If you take away the Big Ten Tournament and CBI Tournament it was 15-16, but in reality, it was closer to an NCAA berth than people think. Two teams from the Big Ten got into the dance with 8-10 league marks in one of the toughest seasons ever, while Purdue had non-conference losses to Bucknell, Villanova, and Xavier, who were all NCAA teams that Purdue was within a possession of in the final minute. If you reverse those three games, the awful Eastern Michigan game, and a late home loss to Michigan that was eerily similar to last night, Purdue is suddenly 20-11, 9-9 in the Big Ten and probably in the NCAA Tournament.
Can we say something similar about this year? The Washington State and Butler losses are looking pretty bad and were not as close as the Villanova, Bucknell, and Xavier games. Oklahoma State was a similar loss to Washington State in that one really good half was combined with a really bad half to equal a loss. It is in Big Ten play that Purdue has struggled even more. Of Purdue's 10 regular season big Ten losses last year seven were to ranked teams. This year Purdue has lost 8 of its last 10 against a weaker Big Ten and has not been the same since that skid started in a double-OT loss at Northwestern. Unless Purdue shockingly wins its final three Big Ten games they can't even match last year's Big Ten record.
It is not all bad though. Last night's loss and the Northwestern loss were especially painful in extra session, but easily could be reversed. Still it seems like this team is a lot farther away from the tournament when you look at the overall profile.
That is what is scary. Yes, Purdue is young, but the sophomores that will be the team's leaders next season have played 62 major college basketball games so far. The freshmen have played in 28. The youth excuse will not fly next year. I recognize that much of our impatience stems from seeing the Baby Boilers come in a few years ago and nearly win the Big Ten as freshmen, but even taking them as the exception to the rule, we expected better than 31-31.
Next year is entirely on them and coach Painter. Not only will they be completely in charge, they won't even be playing with anyone that played with one of the Baby Boilers. The gap in recruiting from the 2007 class to the 2012 class will be wiped clean and with no scholarship seniors, it is entirely one guys like Ronnie Johnson, Rapheal Davis, and A.J. Hammons. Simply put, it is their time to step forward.
Ronnie continues to improve as a point guard and I honestly think he will get better when he is not playing with his brother. Those two seem to rely on each other a little too much at the expense of the other three players on the floor, so the loss of TJ may open things up. Ray D. is doing all the right things in terms of effort, hustle, and off the floor leadership, but he must become a more reliable scorer. We've seen he can do it (Notre Dame and Minnesota last year?), so we know it is there.
Then, there is the curious case of Hammons. We knew there was a chance Hammons could go to the NBA after this season with a big year and that hasn't happened. We have seen he can be one of the most dominant players in college basketball, like in the first Ohio State game, but we have also seen him become a ghost. We're waiting for him to "put it all together", mostly because we know that when (if?) it ever happens Purdue will get better in a hurry.
These three guys will be in charge of a team that will still be young, but will still have a lot of talent and experience next season. They need to seize that and be the Purdue leaders of old. This team desperately needs a Brian Cardinal, a Chris Kramer, or a Robbie Hummel. Will it be Ray D.? Bryson Scott? Kendall Stephens? Someone else? That is part of the mystery.
I think that is why I still have hope and I am still behind coach Painter. There is no doubt in my mind that this team has talent. Coach Painter has had success in the past and it is not like he completely forgotten how to coach. It is effort on the floor and leadership that has been maddeningly inconsistent. The pieces are there in terms of talent and coaching. We saw it even last night for much of the game as Purdue was rolling. Even late, coach Painter drew up a solid play to get RJ to the line for go-ahead free throws with less than a minute left in OT. It is merely a question of how to harness it.
This summer will be a huge one for Purdue basketball. Next fall 11 players with at least two years of eligibility will come together and the pieces for a very strong team are clearly there. There could be the addition of someone like P.J. Thompson or another fifth-year transfer, but because of the scholarship situation next year is scary because it is basically the team we will have for two seasons. What happened in 2014-15 will effect 2015-16.
The best Purdue teams have been ones that have played better than the sum of their parts. They have meshed, flowed well together, and out-worked opponents every night. This team, by the recruiting rankings, will be one of Purdue's most talented, but it has to find that connection that has been missing for two years because it does not play the in-your-jersey defense and dive on the floor offense that is Purdue basketball.
If coach Painter finds that connection then he will have earned his large salary and Purdue will have no problem reaching the 2015 NCAA Tournament. If it is missing, Purdue will miss the tournament for a third straight year with little hope of breaking it in 2015-16. That would make coach Painter's seat very warm.