If I were to sum up the 2014-15 basketball season for Purdue I would say it exceeded expectations by doing exactly what was expected. Those words together don't make much sense, but try to follow my meaning. Before the season I felt a goal of 20 wins, an NCAA Tournament berth, and a first round victory were reasonable despite missing the tournament the last two seasons.In fact,t hat should be the bare minimum every season for this program. Well, Purdue won 20 regular season games, comfortably made the NCAA Tournament, and was inches away from having that first round win. In fact, they came as close as you can to winning a tournament game without doing it.
Even in that, it felt like Purdue exceeded expectations because of where it was in late December. After the 8-5 non-conference season that included four sub-100 losses the fact that this team won 12 Big Ten games to save itself is remarkable. It was a far different team after December 22 than before that date. Yes, it was still flawed because the offense was spotty and long-range shooting was even more troublesome, but Purdue was good enough to get the job of getting to the NCAAs done.
Now, with only Jon Octeus definitely gone from the program, Purdue can build on this for what could be a very successful year in 2015-16. Purdue could have one of the most experienced teams with the fewest personnel losses in the conference. It finally will turn youth into experience and expectation can, and should, be much higher next season. There are still five major questions to answer, however:
Will A.J. Hammons return?
What is the big man going to do? Right now, he is a second round pick at best for most mock drafts, which is lower than he was at last season. He did show, however, the ability to be dominant at times. Clearly, this year was his best overall season and defensively Hammons was a menace during the Big Ten season. Does he risk it if he is a second round pick with no guaranteed contract? One draft site doesn't even have him as a pick.
I have no idea what A.J. will do. He was projected much, much higher after last season than after this one. If he wants to improve his stock a dominant senior season, where he could be the Big Ten Player of the Year (something a certain JaJuan Johnson did a few years ago) would be a great way to do it.
My gut says that A.J. stays, but I must preface this by saying I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING CONCRETE!
What will Caleb Swanigan do?
The No. 8 player in the nation according to ESPN's recruiting rankings just had 40 points and 17 rebounds in a semi-state victory for his team. In less than a week he will play for a state championship, then the waiting will begin. The dominant 6'8" power forward would come in to a very good situation in West Lafayette, and the Boilers are definitely in the running. He does not want to play the five in college and with Hammons and Isaac Haas, he won't have to.
The only downside I can see to Swanigan coming in is who loses minutes, because he does not really enter at a position of need. Right now the four is locked down by Vince Edwards and Basil Smotherman. Edwards is going to be very, very good, but good enough to block a top 10 recruit? If you can shift Edwards to the three at times, that is great, but then Rapheal Davis gets pushed, and Davis is the unquestioned team leader. What Purdue needs is a proven point guard (more on this later), and adding Swanigan, even if he is excellent, can upset the balance of what we already have. That said, if it can make us a better basketball team (most likely it will) we can worry about that later. How about we figure out who gets what minutes once he signs.
What will Bryson Scott do?
I saw these two tweets yesterday and it was somewhat troubling:
Worries Up To The Man Above.— Bryson Scott (@Bryson23Scott) March 21, 2015
These were the first two tweets from Bryson since the season-long Twitter ban was lifted, and given the situation in which he ended the season (22 Big Ten points, 11 of which came against Indiana) there is speculation that he and coach Painter are at odds. I am sure the season-ending sit down with each player is coming this week, but it was clear that aside from the Indiana game in Mackey, something was off between coach Painter and Bryson this year.
I also find it somewhat troubling that he mentioned talking to Sterling Carter, who has experience as a transfer student. Is he thinking of leaving the program for somewhere else, perhaps to play with his brother at Indiana State? That is nothing but speculation.
And that really is where we are at with Bryson. Everything is speculation at this point. For all we know, he was really happy with his role. For all we know, he had a hidden injury limiting his time. For all we know, He and Brenton (his twin brother at Indiana State) decided to switch places this year. The truth is we need good Bryson Scott. When Bryson is playing in control he can be a difference maker on defense and offensively he can attack the rim and open up an offense that can be stagnant at times. His skill set among the returning players is unique. No else can do what he can do when he is in "I am going to kill Indiana" mode.
Can Purdue become a better shooting team?
Purdue was 84th in the country in field goal percentage, but a lot of that comes from Hammons and Haas taking some very high percentage shots near the basket. As we saw against Cincinnati, Purdue cannot spread teams out consistently if it cannot knock down good looks from long range. The Boilers had a lot of open look from three against Cincy, but could not hit. What made the Baby Boilers teams so dangerous is that Robbie Hummel. E'Twaun Moore, Ryne Smith, and Keaton Grant were very good shooters from three, and guys like John Hart, Chris Kramer, Lewis Jackson, D.J. Byrd could hit it well enough to keep teams honest.
If Purdue hits the open looks it had against the Bearcats it wins by 20. No question. The biggest offensive liability Purdue had all season was its inability to hit wide open jumpers. If it finds a way to negate this liability the offense, with tow massive centers, can be virtually unstoppable.
There are some hints that Purdue can be more than Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias from long range. Ray D. had a good Big Ten season, but he was clearly affected by missing three good open looks early against Cincy. If he can get in the gym (and I know he will) and be at least a regular threat from three it will help a lot because of his driving ability.
The second player that can be a better shooter from distance is Edwards. Vince was our best all-around player against Cincinnati and finished the year with 29 made triples, third behind Dakota and Kendall. His Cincinnati game reminded a lot of people of the glory days of Hummel, which can be Vince's ceiling. Robbie was so effective because he could shoot, play inside out, get garbage baskets, rebound, and pass. That is Vince. Of all the current players on the roster, Vince Edwards has the highest ceiling.
Finally, the development of P.J. Thompson as a shooter is critical. Who had a wide open three and was not afraid to take it vs. Cincy in OT? It was P.J. He finished the year 14 of 49, hitting just over 28% for the year. How P.J. comes along is critical to the next point.
Who will be Purdue's point guard?
Nationally, Purdue was 37th out of 351 teams in assists at 14.9 per game. The Boilers are at their best when five players are functioning as a single unit, and that is why the gap between our leading scorer (Hammons at 11.9 ppg) and out no. 6 scorer (Haas at 7.6 ppg) is so small. Everyone is involved and you have to watch all five players as a threat to score.
A major reason for that was Octeus, who had a fantastic year and brought this team together with his leadership. He was the perfect fit for this team, and will be sorely missed. The choices to replace him are the erratic Bryson Scott, Thompson, who looked overmatched for much of the year but played more than Scott, and true freshman Grant Weatherford.
At one time I called P.J. "Lewis Jackson with a jump shot." Well, I was pretty far off:
P.J.'s freshman year: 407 minutes (13.6 per game), 24 of 72 FG (33.3), 14 of 49 3FG (28.6%), 1.1 APG, 0.6 turnover per game)
LewJack's freshman year: 851 minutes (23.6 per game), 85 of 191 FG (44.5%), 11 of 33 3FG (33.3%) 3.3 APG, 2.1 TPG)
Now, this is skewed a little. LewJack had to play a lot more as a freshman as a necessity, but his supporting cast includes three players whose number is now in the rafters at Mackey Arena and a fourth (Kramer) who was a tough as nails defender. Where we really saw LewJackand how he meshed with everyone was after he returned from injury as a sophomore and he meshed with everyone. For seven complete games we got a healthy LewJack and Purdue won all seven, including at Ohio State, Indiana, and Michigan State in 2010. Then, That Night In The Barn happened. We achieved basketball nirvana with LewJack for those seven games, and even though he shared three of four years with the Baby Boilers, it was only those seven games where we had him as a non-freshman with the Big 3.
With Thompson, I think he can still be a very good point guard, and he should not be punished because he doesn't have Hummel, Johnson, and Moore around him. He is a smart player that has a lot to work on this season, but with a more consistent jumper and some experience, he can be just fine.
The real question is Bryson, who needs to return and be good Bryson 100% of the time. Honestly, Bryson can be a better player than P.J. (though Thompson has the better jumper). Bryson's ability to drive to the basket is more similar to LewJack in that regard, but P.J. is the better player for the open three-pointer. Purdue needs to have both and have them compliment each other, all while running the offense with the same manner and demeanor that LewJack did.
That might be the biggest question here.