Before the Butler loss, heck even just before the Iowa loss, people were wondering if this team was the best Painter ever had, including the Baby Boilers era. Sure, from top to bottom, the 2015-16 team has a better talent distribution than any Baby Boiler team ever had. If the 2015-16 team were to play the 2009-10 team in a 10v10 match up, this year's squad would easily win. But in a 5v5 match up (i.e. actual basketball), it would probably fall short of the current squad being murdered. And that's the issue:
While Purdue may have the deepest and most talented overall squad in the Big Ten, and maybe the nation, they are not even close to having the best 5 player line up in the conference that can dominate teams inside and out from tip-off to the final horn.
Painter has had the luxury of having many talented players for one position, like Hammons and Haas at center, but that has led to not only multiple changes in the starting line-up throughout this season, but also multiple substitutions and line changes during games that make you wonder if Painter is coaching a hockey game instead of a basketball game. I still like Painter as head coach, but I think it's become a bit clearer that he doesn't trust this team fully. He's quick to bench most players as soon as they attempt 1 bad shot, make 1 bad pass, or just fail to read the opponent's scheme on one play.
At the beginning of the season, I didn't blame him. One example comes from Purdue's three point shooting: "Why not bench Stephens as soon as he attempts an early 3 pointer and misses it? Better bring in Mathias or Cline!" (BTW: you could easily switch out Stephens with Mathias or Cline.) While I'm not a psychologist, I assume this could impact the player's mentality. If you're a player knowing that your coach is going to bench you as soon as you make a mistake, this could make a player bit more tense and could force them to make a mistake. While Painter said after the Iowa game that he would allow his players to play a bit more loose on offense, it doesn't address the overall issue with this team lacking 5 talented and consistent players.
I was watching this clip from the 2010 Purdue vs IU game. While Purdue was a talented team on its way to its 22nd Big Ten Title and IU was on its way to penultimate finish in the Big Ten, IU was giving Purdue hell and looking for an upset, and almost got it too. This video here shows the last 5 minutes of the game, and I want you to notice something about the Purdue players on the court.
Outside of the obvious (worse video quality because we've been spoiled with HD, how many defensive plays would be called fouls this season, IU choking, etc.), the one thing that stood out to me is that Painter made no substitutions during these last 5 critical minutes in a game that had been close since the tip off. In this entire stretch, E'twaun, JaJuan, Robbie, Kramer, and Grant stayed in and wore out IU's upset. While IU missing free throws certainly helped, Purdue was able to dominate the Hoosiers and get the win. And to be honest with you, if time travel was possible, I don't think the current Purdue team could go into that game and beat the Hoosiers. It might have ended similar to Sunday's Illinois game.
And that brings me back to my main point after a 500 word tangent: Painter cannot find 5 players on this team that can lead this team to a victory, and that's why they are losing. There has been discussion of what if Basil Smotherman didn't red shirt his junior season, but honestly at this point, it would just be another player for Painter to rotate in and make the line-ups even more chaotic (plus, he did injure his hand a week or so into the regular season, so he would've probably stayed on the bench anyways, but I digress). This team cannot set a rhythm with a consistently changing starting line-up, let alone multiple substitutions throughout the game, that can dominate opponents with a 25 point run in a 3 minute span. Painter needs 5 players that he can trust and have them play a majority of the minutes, and I have a few proposals:
Line-up 1: Mathias, Davis, Edwards, Swanigan, Hammons
This is a slight deviation from the current starting line-up, replacing Hill with Mathias. I can already hear groans by keeping Swanigan in here; however, I keep him in here because this would allow Purdue to not only utilize its size, but most importantly because Painter has implied that he trusts Swanigan despite his lack of effort in these last few games. And in order to establish and consistent starting-5, there needs to be trust between the coach and the players, even if mistakes are made. I really like Johnny Hill (a lot, a whole lot), but he doesn't offer the same offensive threat that Mathias brings, namely being able to create an offensive threat behind the arc. Mathias, and Stephens too, have improved their skills within the arc and in the paint, and with a little bit more time both of these players can be great guards. Davis, Edwards, and Hammons are perhaps the 3 best players on this Purdue team, so I don't think I need to explain why these 3 need to stay. This line up can and should attack the paint and basket with ease, while Mathias, Davis, and Edwards can open things up with long-range jumpers.
Line-up 2: Hill, Mathias, Davis, Edwards, Hammons.
I have a feeling this one will be the crowd favorite between the two I present here. I like Swanigan, but I can't deny the fact that he has been a possession killer in Purdue's 3 losses so far this season, and that maybe Painter is putting too much trust in him at this point. This starting line-up was very similar to what Purdue used last season when they made their comeback campaign during conference play (replacing Hill with Octeus). By pushing Vince back to the 4, it can create more space in the paint for Hammons to exercise his will and makes Vince a threat throughout the entire half-court on offense. Unlike line-up 1, with Hill bringing up the ball, Mathias can either help break a press (*shivers*) or most of the time find a way to get open for a quick 3 pointer. And again Davis can find ways to get open or make space for his teammates to get points.
For either one of these 2 line-ups, I think a case could also be made for Stephens instead of Mathias, especially in line-up 2, but I am sticking with Mathias so we don't go down an endless hole of possible line-ups, since that's what we're trying to avoid here...And I'm not saying that either one of these line-ups will automatically make Purdue dominant and win the B1G, but it could at least establish some consistency and get Purdue back on a winning track. Just my opinion of course.
Whichever line-up Painter goes with, he needs to stick with it the rest of the season and trust his players. I'm not saying that the starting five should all play for 35-40 minutes each game, but they should all be on the court together for the majority of a game as they build trust and chemistry amongst themselves, just like the Baby Boilers did in the 2009-10 season. Granted, things could get shifted with an injury, or most likely, foul trouble. Just look at the Illinois game, many players had foul issues early on, like Vince who racked up 3 fouls in the first half, limiting his performance. But of course, that's where Purdue can utilize its deep bench. It may mess up the rhythm of the game, but a few minutes they have a valuable back-up option for each position.
This of course means players like Haas, Thompson, Stephens, Cline, etc. will see a reduction in their minutes, but it's a sacrifice that has to be made. After all, this was the reason why Basil decided to take a red shirt this season. These players can still contribute greatly off the bench for a few minutes at a time, but consistently rotating them in has done more harm than good. It's not their fault, but ultimately Painter's for not establishing a trust between himself, the players, and establishing a consistent starting line-up that he can trust, and it is his issue to fix.