I hate the month of April. Historically, it has been the cruelest month in my life. If anything can go wrong, it will happen in this month. I think one reason I hate it is because it marks the end of basketball season. Since I am not a fan of the NBA, Last Tuesday night my season ended appropriately in the last hour of the month of March. The Purdue women's team fought valiantly against Oklahoma, but the Sooners were just too good in the end.
As the 2008-09 season fades into memory I wanted to take a look back at the men's team. Few teams can look at a 27-10 record and see where it could have been so much more, but Purdue is one of those teams. Did we overachieve? Did we underachieve? Did we just achieve? If you look at our preseason top 10 ranking, we underachieved. If you base it on where we finished last year, we clearly took a step forward by advancing another level in the tournament and successfully winning a championship. That is why I think we simply achieved. Placing us in the top 10 was probably about a year in advance. Still, I get the feeling it could have been more.
Missed opportunities: Losses to Oklahoma, Penn State, Ohio State, and Northwestern
I can't help but feel like all four of those games could have been wins. Even without Hummel and Kramer we were able to overcome and early deficit to build a second half lead in Happy Valley. Since Penn State won the NIT they are clearly a pretty good basketball team too. To have a game where it felt like one got away without two of our key players it is a good sign for the program. We somehow took a six man rotation (without a top scorer) into that one and nearly got a win.
The others are pretty much the same tune. Oklahoma was the first sign we could seriously compete with a top 10 team. I am confident that had we played almost anyone else in the Sweet 16 we would have won because of the lessons learned against the Sooners, but UConn was a very poor matchup for us. Against Ohio State we missed Hummel and still had one shot to win the game in regulation. Northwestern is probably the only game in which we spiked ourselves. The final 10 minutes of that game was the worst 10 minutes of the season.
Reasons for hope: Stomping Michigan State at home, beating Washington in a virtual road game, winning the Big Ten Tournament.
This is why basketball is all about matchups. We had no answer for Hasheem Thabeet and suffered because of it. Michigan State, however, beat supposedly unbeatable Louisville in convincing fashion, then did the same to UConn because of mathups. The Cardinals were the #1 overall seed, yet they had losses to Minnesota and Michigan State. These are two teams we have very convincing wins against. To me, that shows just how close we are to being a Final Four team.
Beating Washington was important on a different level. Though it was a 4/5 matchup, it was the first time we have beaten a top 4 seed in NCAA play since 2000. The Huskies were a very good team with quality senior leadership. They were the champion of a major conference, yet we controlled the game throughout.
Finally, we have the Big Ten Tournament. For three days in Indianapolis we played some of our best basketball of the season. The Big Ten was a tough conference this year from top to bottom. It will only get tougher next year as all the sophomore talent become juniors. Winning that tournament gave our guys their first taste of a championship of any kind since winning the Great Alaska Shootout over Duke in 2004. As I wrote after the title game, there is a difference between thinking you are a championship-level team and knowing it. We now know we are that type of team. Of the other 11 schools in the conference only Michigan State and some players left on Wisconsin know what that level is like. This experience will be invaluable next year.
Lookaheads to next year for each player:
Robbie Hummel - Robbie needs to get healthy and continue to work hard on the glass. His scoring will come in bursts, but we really need his rebounding effort to stay high since JaJuan isn't a strong rebounder yet. A completely healthy Robbie Hummel unbinds our offense.
E'Twaun Moore - E'Twaun was too timid at times this year. We needed him to take over in the UConn game and he was virtually a non-factor. He is our most dangerous pure scorer and showed he can be a solid rebounder as a guard. He has it in him to be so much more as a player. If last year was Robbie's spring board and this year was JaJuan's, it is only natural that E'Twaun makes the leap next.
JaJuan Johnson - JJ needs to become a strong rebounder. I think he is going to spend plenty of time in the weight room this summer and he can become a dominant force in the conference. Rebounding is the one area of his game that seems to be missing. As long as he can step out and consistently hit 17 footers there will be few teams that can guard him offensively, but he was a non-factor on the glass in too many games. A 6'10" guy should accidently get 7 rebounds a game.
Lewis Jackson - LewJack needs to work on finishing his layups. He has more quickness than most people, but he consistently botches it by not being able to finish at the rim. I love the element his speed gives our offense. With another year to work on that things should flow even more smoothly.
Chris Kramer - We saw a little bit of this during the tournament, but Chris has to become an offensive threat. His defense is invaluable, but since he rarely shoots it is almost like no one bothers to guard him. I still think his is a little timid after getting knocked out at Clemson last season. I'm not asking for much. If he can raise his scoring average to just 8 points per game it gives other teams something else to worry about.
Keaton Grant - I can see Keaton becoming a player that gets lost in the mix a bit next year when other teams are focusing on everyone else. Keaton has some scoring ability similar to E'Twaun's game, We need him to be a consistent 3-point threat as well as the new "Little Things" guy to replace Marcus Green.
Ryne Smith and John Hart - I don't know where they are going to find minutes, but if they can provide valuable depth and shooting it will help. I can see Smith becoming a 3-point specialist. I haven't seen Hart play yet, so who knows.
D.J. Byrd - I can't tell you how excited I am to have this kid coming to Purdue. He's a hard-nosed worker. He can do a little bit of everything. He's a tough kid who, most importantly, grew up LOVING Purdue. He has long known what Purdue basketball means in terms of toughness and tenacity, and he will fit in nicely. He will step into Marcus Green's role and be a better player. From the three times I have seen him play in person he has shown me that he is a tenacious rebounder and he has a nice shooting touch. He's not afraid to do the dirty work on defense either. Think of him as a hybrid of Marcus Green and Chris Kramer with better offense. He had a fantastic IHSAA regional just weeks after knee surgery. Just imagine how good he is at 100%.
D.J. Byrd is a guy that can definitely contribute immediately and will add size, depth, scoring, and tenacity.
Patrick Bade - I missed on a couple of chances to see him this season. I was expecting to cover him in the championship game of the Zionsville Tournament, but Lafayette Central Catholic pulled the upset and I missed the consolation game. I also passed on the chance to see what ended up being one of his best games in the regional championship game at Hinkle against Lawrence North. That game right there said a lot about him. Lawrence North was a team loaded with division 1 talent and Bade put on a virtuoso performance. I look for him to be Robbie's backup and he could be a very big surprise. Another bonus with bade is that he did attend the same high school as JJ. They were two years apart, but there is a familiarity already there of them playing with each other. If we go with a big lineup of JJ, Robbie, and bade the experience JJ and Bade have in playing together will reap huge benefits, as will the experience of JJ with Hummel these past two years.
Kelsey Barlow - I haven't seen or heard much about Barlow. I know he has good size for a guard and could get bigger. That is a benefit because if you can get big, strong guards that can score it can be a huge difference-maker. Just look at what A.J. Price did against us. He was able to get in the lane and muscle shots up with contact. Right now we don't have a player that can do that, but Barlow could be that guy. There will be a logjam of guys trying to get minutes at the guard positions with Kramer, LewJack, Hart, Smith, E'Twaun, and Keaton all returning. Byrd could even be a hybrid guard/forward at the three position. If anything, Barlow gives us quality depth to develop.
Jeff Robinson - If anything, Robinson is the guy that I am most not sold on. Unfortunately, he has the most size of anyone we have coming in (I am not commenting much on Marcius until we have him). We need someone who can come in and immediately give us the same minutes as Calasan if not more. Otherwise, teams will focus on JJ as our only real low-post option and force us to hit jump shots. You can have success that way, but it is a high risk/high reward proposition. The questions surrounding Robinson's eligibility are an issue as well. After working at the NCAA I know that such questions have so many variable that it is hard to speculate on. Even I were still working there I could easily find out the exact issue, but obviously couldn't say anything about it because I'd get fired. Because of that, anything you hear is merely speculation. This is my one concern because he is the one player we have in the area of most need, and he isn't really a proven player. He struggled to find minutes at Lawrence North on a team loaded with talent, and hade minute games where he didn't contribute at all. This is why I think Bade is a player that needs to develop more.
Matt Painter - I know he's not a player, but there are improvements that Painter must make himself. He just passed the 100 win mark as a coach this season, so he is successful, but has a way to go yet. Boilerdowd is big on talking about this lately, so I will just link to his rants on how Painter needs to work the refs more and learn how to attack zone defenses. In high school, my coach was renowned for his 2-3 zone. The guy is a hall of famer with more than 650 wins and two state championships. I have seen so many of his games that I can tell within the first five minutes if a team has a chance against his zone. I say this because it does indeed take proper coaching to make adjustments against zone defenses. Too many teams are content to just jack up threes when they face a zone. You have to attack it and draw the defense to you so you can kick out to open threes or create easy baskets down low. Once Painter learns how to teach this we will make a huge leap forward.
As I write this, it is Apirl 8th. I am on a plane flying back to Indianapolis from Miami. It is the farthest point possible from the next basketball season, yet I am so excited that I can barely contain myself. The Final Four is in Indianapolis next year. It's less than 60 miles from campus. I currently live so close that if the weather is nice, I can walk to it because it is within 2 miles. I have already resolved one thing: If the Boilers are there, I am going regardless of cost. It will only cost me a ticket, anyway, so why not?
In 2000 I was a sophomore when we made the Elite 8, making it incredibly tempting as well. The difference between 2010 and 2000 is that the expectation is there before the season even starts. When Brian Cardinal & Co. nearly went in 2000 it was a surprise. At no point in that season were we expected to be a Final Four team, yet we made the West Region Final as the higher seed against Wisconsin, knocking off Dayton, Oklahoma, and Gonzaga along the way. We were a 6 seed that pulled just one true upset along the way while someone else took out the 1, 2, 4, and 5 seeds for us. In 2010 we will go into the season likely as a top 10 team with experience and on the short list of teams to make the Final Four.
There is more than enough experience there. We know how to win a championship by winning the Big Ten Tournament. We know how to win in the NCAA's with three wins in the past two seasons. The next logical step is to threaten for a Final Four. At the very least we have to take the next step and make the Elite 8 so we at least play for a Final Four berth. The timing is right, and anything less, unfortunately, would be viewed as a step back.