We've been written off, officially. Send back your Project Houston shirts. Cancel the plane reservations. Andy Katz said it is all meaningless. The curse of October 16th has come true, costing us a National title just as it did during The Fumble on October 16, 2004.
On Friday, I ranked Purdue No. 2 and wrote that "the Boilermakers haven't had a single hiccup during the offseason." Less than 24 hours later, Robbie Hummel retore his right ACL during the team's first full practice. The loss can't be overstated. The Boilers still have a pair of All-Big Ten players in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore and are still very much an NCAA tournament team, but it's hard to foresee this being a Final Four contender without Hummel. - Andy Katz on the Hummel injury dropping Purdue from #2 to #23 in his poll.
It is day 2 of the mourning process, and that means the delusions of grandeur are back. I have always said that delusions of grandeur are the best because other types of delusions are boring. Historically, Purdue has always performed better without the yoke of expectations. In 1988 we were a national title favorite and fell in the Sweet 16. Fast forward 11 years, when the 1999 team probably shouldn't have even made the tournament, yet still reached the second weekend.
What most of the mainstream media forgets is that this team fights so much harder when the expectations are lower. We're now missing Robbie Hummel to go along with Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant. It sucks. It is not going to be easy, but we can still think of a National Title as a reasonable goal. Here is what I see as the new roles for everyone:
E'Twaun Moore, Lewis Jackson, JaJuan Johnson
Two potential First-team All-Americans and NBA Draft picks and a junior at point guard going into his third season of starting. On most teams that would mean a top 10 ranking, and I would even guess that Purdue would be a top 10 team if we had never heard of Robbie.
Let's look at JJ first. By all accounts, he has improved his game thanks to the advice he received from the NBA scouts when he went through the early entry process last spring. With a good year he is going to be a first round selection. He may even be the best center in college basketball. He has gotten stronger, allowing him to bang down low, and now we have Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius to back him up, as well as an improved Patrick Bade. The biggest disappointment with Robbie's injury is that we can no longer do the Bade/Marcius/Carroll at the five, JJ at the four, and put Robbie at the 3 to destroy smaller forwards. We can still get a hybrid of it though, possibly with Kelsey Barlow at the three if he can become a reliable scorer.
As for LewJack and Smooge, we need them to continue being the players we know they can be. LewJack needs to distribute the ball and be able to hit free throws. E'Twaun is going to be a scorer and I can see him dropping 20 per game easily. He has shown that he can rebound and distribute as well. The second big thing we will miss without Robbie is his ability to seal games from the line. LewJack needs to hit free throw because he will be fouled at the point, and E'Twaun will probably be the main guy we look to in end game situations.
Potential Starters: Kelsey Barlow, Patrick Bade, Terone Johnson, Ryne Smith
GDB is now going to be the key swing player in Hummel's absence. We have few guys with his combination of size and athleticism. He needs to be a guy that both crashes the boards and drives to the basket like Robbie did. Ryne Smith can pick up the 3-point shooting slack that Robbie gave us, but Barlow needs to be the athletic freak he can be. Unfortunately, Barlow is a huge liability at the line and some have questions his work ethic. Fortunately, I think coach Painter will correct his work ethic. I don't know about the free throws though.
With bade, we're going to get a leaner, more athletic player than the one we saw last year. He also has the potential of being able to hit the open jumper away from the basket. He was able to do so in high school with consistency, but we didn't ask that of him last year. He needs to break out of the mold of being a Run, Rebound, and Defend guy (Painter's own words) and be a Robbie-lite type of player. Asking him to duplicate Robbie exactly is a bit much, but asking him to do half that would help immensely. It would allow Marcius and Carroll to play the role that Bade played last year behind JJ, only better.
I put down Ryne Smith as a potential starter because I know he can fill it up from outside. As a junior, he will likely take a bigger role on this team, though it is more likely he will be a 3-point shooter off the bench. More likely I think Terone Johnson will start. When I saw him last season I was impressed that he already looked ready for major college basketball. The kid was built and was not afraid to go inside and do some dirty work against bigger players. He even did it against Travis Carroll in the game I saw, often guarding him well despite giving up 6-7 inches to him.
Biggest keys to replacing Robbie: Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius
I can understand why people are writing this team off already. They see the exact same team that was overpowered by Duke sans Hummel last year, only it is now missing Kramer. They don't know about Marcius and Carroll because they haven't seen them play. As Purdue fans, we know very little, but we have a lot of hope for these two guys. Marcius is a wide body and potential bruiser in the lane. Last year's redshirt year may have been best for him because it allowed him to acclimate more. As for Carroll, he has a lot of potential as a deft big man with 15 foot range and a good passing touch. He impressed me last year against the best possible competition he could play when I saw him. Terone Johnson's North Central team was the Class 4A state champ with multiple D-I caliber players. Carroll asserted himself well and kept his teammates involved by knowing when to pass the ball out. As long as he and Marcius can be the Run, Rebound, Defend guys that do the dirty work inside it will free up JJ.
Basically, we now have four post players as opposed to the three we had at the best moments last year, and two of them are true low block players in Carroll and Marcius. I don't think we had a true, dedicated low block guy like them since Carl Landry.
To me, these two, along with Barlow's role, are the biggest x-factors in making this season out to be what we all thought it would be with Robbie.
Key Bench Players: D.J. Byrd, Anthony Johnson, John Hart
These young guys are going to be role players. We don't need them to drop 15 per night, but we do need them to be threats to score when they are out there. One of the biggest problems we have seen offensively is when we settle into the "Only JJ and E'Twaun can score" mode. Hart and Byrd have proven they can be three-point threats as well as threats to drive to the basketball and create shots. As long as they prove they can score when out there they will draw attention away from the bigger guns. As for AJ, I know very little about him. I understand that he is a scorer and a shooter. You can never have too many of those.
Coach: Matt Painter
Let us not underestimate the value Painter gives us as a coach. We only lost six games last year and recovered from multiple injuries (LewJack, Marcius, and Hummel) to make the Sweet 16 and win possibly the toughest conference in the country. Of those six losses, only one game (Minnesota) was a true blowout. The Michigan State loss was an ugly game where neither team looked good. Duke overpowered us by exploiting a weakness (size) that is no longer there. We played three of the four teams that made last year's Final Four, beating two of them while never once having the complete lineup we expected at the start of the season. That's a hell of a coaching job if you ask me.
Now we are a better team than the one that fought Duke (the National Champion) very hard in the Sweet 16. We have experience and now depth at a lot of key roles. Yes, we are missing a very, very good player, but we have a lot more time to compensate and evolve. By the time we play our first real game (at Virginia Tech on December 1st) we will have had a full month and a half to adjust.
By the way, we're still going to be one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. JJ can swat shots with impunity, and I will take LewJack, E'Twaun, D.J. Byrd, and others as perimeter defenders any day. These guys remember the example that Kramer set the past four years. I think Byrd can be the heir to that example, while LewJack's quickness at the point can be worth 2-3 steal and fast break layups per game. I love defense because it makes winning that much easier. If you can hold teams to 60 or less that means you only need 61 points to achieve the goal: a win. We can easily do that.
Here is honestly what I expect: I still don't see a non-conference game that is an overwhelming challenge. West Virginia and Virginia Tech are good road tests, but they are winnable games. While we might start lower in the rankings, we have plenty of time to keep winning and climbing. I predict that by the time the Big Ten Conference season rolls around we're going to be unbeaten and there will be articles stating that our demise was greatly exaggerated and praising Matt Painter for the job he has done.
The number in front of our name does not matter at the start of the season, only the number at the end. Saying that we're not a Final Four threat anymore is a statement from the uneducated. Remember, Butler wasn't a Final Four threat last year because Syracuse was in their way and Michigan State wasn't because they had too many injuries in the tournament. Let's play this out and see what happens. I'll still roll with this team over most anyone else in the country. They're going to fight like mad bastards because that is exactly what they have done for years now.