When A.J. Hammons announced he was returning to the Purdue basketball team for his senior season it was like a mini-celebration for Purdue fans. After the sting of losing out on another big name recruit to Michigan State Purdue needed some good news. Hammons gave Purdue that news. What does his return mean for the Purdue team next season and how much better does he make the team?
One of the main things people always talk about with basketball teams is what is the ceiling. How far can this team go on their best day? During my lifetime of watching, and remembering, Purdue basketball I can only remember three teams that I felt had a legitimate shot to go to the Final Four. I'm sure all of you are thinking of the same squads. Those would be Glenn Robinson's final season ('93-'94), Brian Cardinal's Senior year ('99-'00), and of course the year which was marred by Robbie's knee injury ('09-'10). Those three teams had the chance not only to get to the Final Four but to win it all. It takes a special team to even have the thought that they could get there. These teams all got tantalizingly close but fell just short with two of them making it to the Elite Eight. Can this Purdue team next year be the fourth such team in my memory? Well that depends on three factors coming together.
First, can Hammons play an entire season like he did to close out the year? Hammons has a motivation issue. I'm not insulting the guy it's just a fact. His own coaches admit as such and even Hammons himself has mentioned it. For whatever reason the guy just doesn't seem to love the game and get up for it each and every day. Toward the middle of last season that all changed. A.J. was playing inspired basketball on both ends of the floor and truly looked like the player we all thought he could become. The jump shooting is still a little much for me but I suppose I can handle one per game. His presence makes this Purdue team a force to be reckoned with. While Davis may have won the defensive player of the year award he was only able to win it because he knew that Hammons was back there to clean up a mess. Advancing in the NCAA Tournament is all about your draw. Had Purdue played with the same intensity at the start of the season as they did to end it perhaps they wouldn't have faced a tough Cincinnati team with Kentucky waiting in the wings. If Purdue gets a different draw who knows what happens. With a motivated A.J. Hammons Purdue can limit those bad losses that haunted them throughout the season.
Second, can Purdue get a point guard? I know P.J. Thompson is still on the team as an experienced point guard but Purdue needs another Jon Octues. Purdue needs a guy who is going to get after it on both ends of the floor. P.J. isn't quite there yet. Give him another year of being pushed each day in practice by an older point guard and he could get there. Playing point guard in Painter's system can't be easy. Painter demands a lot from his point guard on both ends of the floor and not everyone is saucy enough for that task. To be precise, the point guard position at Purdue is tough. Only tough players can hold it down. Octeus showed us last season that you can come in and, with a high basketball IQ, be extremely successful in this system. Purdue is currently scouring the fifth year market for point guards. If this team wants to be truly successful next year they need to have another Jon Octeus came aboard or hope for a big leap from P.J. Thompson.
Third and finally, the shooting has to improve. Purdue struggled form deep this year with a litany of injuries, all small but cumbersome, to Kendall Stephens. You could see something was just off with him all year after the finger dislocation. With an entire year to heal up one can assume he will be back to form without an issue. Dakota Mathias also gives Purdue fans hope as he showed great growth throughout the season and really came into his own as Stephens struggled. If Purdue can get both of them on the same page at the same time it gives them two dangerous sharp shooters. That will force teams to not double down on Hammons in the post. This is the sort of problem teams always have when they play Ohio State. Every year Ohio State seems to have two to three guys who can just light you up from outside on any given day. If you focus to much on those guys then BOOM they beat you down low. It's a problem for any defense and one Purdue hopes to present to opponents next year. To add to those two Purdue has incoming freshman Ryan Cline who happens to be one of the best young shooters in the country.
If Purdue can solve all of those problems in this off-season they've got a legit shot at a special season. Think about it for a second. Purdue will have a dominant post presence. They will have one hell of a backup in Isaac Haas for when Hammons is having an off night or in foul trouble. They will have two, maybe three if Cline progresses, great three point shooters. They will also hopefully have competent point guard play. Add to that returning starters Rapheal Davis and Vince Edwards and you've got a potent lineup that could give team trouble on offense and defense. The ceiling was already high for next year's team but A.J.'s return vaults that ceiling up even higher.