"The guys who didn't play tonight, outside of Travis Carroll and Dru Anthrop, they got to get in the gym. Dru Anthrop, Travis Carroll, they overachieved. They worked their asses off to be here and they care. The other guys are good guys, but you got to show up with a passion and a commitment to what we're doing if you want me to trust you."
That was coach Matt Painter's final comment in the press conference after tonight's 57-55 loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament. In 66 words Matt Painter summed up the expectation of every season of Purdue basketball. The Boilermakers are at their most successful when every guy on the roster is doing just that, whether they play or not. When guys like Chris Reid, who was brought in a few years ago as a JuCo transfer explicitly to bang on bigs in practice and no more, is giving everything and making practice like a small war Purdue is successful.
It was clear, however, that not everyone was on the same page for a good portion this season. First, Purdue only had 11 players on scholarship instead of the usual 13, meaning walk-ons had to fill that practice body role. Those two scholarships should have been filled by John Hart and Kelsey Barlow, who will play their final seasons of eligibility elsewhere instead of helping Purdue as senior leaders.
The injury to Jay Simpson knocked it down to 10. Of those ten, only eight played tonight. The two that did not were Travis Carroll (already cited above as a worker, but did not factor into tonight's rotation) and Jacob Lawson (who has a ton of transfer rumors swirling around him). After playing a big role in Purdue's stunning win over Illinois to start the Big Ten season Lawson has been anchored to the bench, not playing at all in the last four games. Donnie Hale also only played three minutes.
So that left Purdue with nine scholarship guys Painter could trust. Tonight, they just did not get it done. Rapheal Davis disappeared offensively after a strong start. Terone Johnson regularly drove, but had nowhere to go against Brandon Ubel who protected the rim well. Cold D.J. Byrd showed up and though he scored 15 points, missed a ton of shots. The Boilers were 50% from the free throw line and twice missed two free throws in one trip that led to a basket by Ubel at the other end. With Shavon Shields keeping them in it at the start it was all Nebraska needed. Both teams didn't play well. Purdue was worse.
After three games where finally, it looked as if Purdue was getting it and a solid 11 points in the first four and a half minutes the Boilers reverted to the same disrupted offense and poor free throw shooting that cost them at the line so many times this year. In the wild highs some people were talking of a run to an NCAA bid this weekend after three promising games. After one low there are, once again, people saying that Painter needs to be on the hot seat.
Painter is not going to get fired and has done absolutely nothing worthy of getting fired. If Purdue is still this inconsistent and disjointed at this time next year, maybe he inches toward the hot seat. As for now, anyone suggesting he needs to go knows nothing about the game of basketball.
This is the low point. Even in that, a 15-17 season where Purdue was more than competitive in enough losses to reach the NCAA Tournament if they become wins, it is a pretty good low point. The games against Bucknell, Villanova, Xavier, Oregon State, Eastern Michigan, Michigan at home, and tonight very easily could have been victories. It was the matter of one or two plays going differently. Even in a home loss to Ohio State and at both Michigan and Michigan State Purdue was competitive.
My point is that it is not going to take a gigantic turnaround to make even a small improvement needed to get to the NCAA Tournament. We saw in the last week before tonight that improved defense, team play, and better offensive flow can make a world of difference as Purdue convincingly defeated two NCAA Tournament teams and nearly beat a third.
What it will take is work. Work on shooting from the field, like Ronnie Johnson has clearly done with his improvement. It will take work at the free throw line, which cost Purdue more than a few games this year. It will take work on defense and not taking plays off, because going forward that only leads to the bench.
The 2012-13 season is over, barring a bizarre coda in the CBI. I thank Dru Anthrop and D.J. Byrd for their contributions as seniors. To the rest, you're not done. Tomorrow is when the real work for 2013-14 begins.
Terone Johnson, Sandi Marcius, and Travis Carroll, this is your team now. Make your mark.