Going to just begin with a tweet:
It's officially Purdue Basketball season! #BoilerUp— Purdue MBB Managers (@PurdueMBB) September 29, 2017
Sure, it is only practice. The games do not officially get underway for another six weeks. We are even in the unique position of having played together most of the summer thanks to the silver medal finish at the World University Games in Taiwan. Still, this marks the beginning of a long anticipated season with some lofty goals in mind.
Some have already dismissed this team. They see that Caleb Swanigan went pro early and is with the Portland Trailblazers and believe that Purdue has lost too much to really contend. This narrow view sees Biggie as the end all/be all only talent who single-handedly won the Boilermakers a Big Ten championship a year ago.
These people are idiots.
Yes, Caleb was a rare talent. He was a human double-double that is irreplaceable. No team in America would be fine with losing a guy that gave an automatic 15 and 10 every night no matter the opponent. We would love to have him back, but we don’t fault him for going off to the NBA and earning a lot of money to play basketball this season. The fact that it was clearly still a tough decision for him shows how much this team means to him.
Still, I find it laughable whenever I read a preseason top 25 that doesn’t have Purdue. Most had the Boilermakers as a top 5 team with Biggie. Without him it reminds me of when we lost Robbie Hummel before the 2010-11 season. We still had a lot coming back, but suddenly, in some eyes, we sucked.
Now, 7 years later, we’re in a similar position, only we have known for a while that Biggie was gone as opposed to having the loss of a major player sprung on us the first day of practice. This is still one of the most experienced teams in all of college basketball. If anyone else returned four SENIOR starters (senior being critical, as almost no one in a major conference has four senior starters these days) from a team that won the Big Ten by two full games.
It feels like if any other team had that, especially in a major conference, people would be going crazy hyping them. Shoot, Wichita State is being declared a national title contender because: 1. They have experience, and 2. They almost beat Kentucky. The shadow of Biggie is large though. It is almost like Purdue would be getting more respect if Biggie had never played at all, yet it was still the defending Big Ten champion.
Of the top 8 rotation players from a year ago only two are gone: Biggie and Spike Albrecht. Spike averaged less than 2 points per game in 12.5 minutes, but he was mostly a calm, steady ball handler called upon to come in and not make mistakes. The rest of Purdue’s production is back.
P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias started every game a year ago. All P.J. does is not turn the ball over and hit huge shots at critical times. As much as Biggie did last season (and it was a lot) one could argue that P.J. won at least 5 games with a critical basket late that either gave or extended Purdue’s lead in the final minutes. He also often did it on the road, as game at Maryland, Penn State, and Indiana come to mind where P.J. hit a big shot in the final minutes. The same is true of his huge three-pointer against Iowa State in Milwaukee.
Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas have been there. They have played the battles in the post. Edwards even has gotten valuable NBA feedback the last two years. With Haas, he physically cannot be guarded 1 on 1 on the low block. It is impossible. If his passing out of the double team has improved even slightly Purdue will be better. As for Edwards, he has the ability to be the best player in the conference. That is his ceiling.
Beyond those four Purdue still has experience. Carsen Edwards is coming off of a strong freshman season and he gained valuable experience over the summer. Not only did he play well in Taiwan, he got an additional few games with USA basketball at the U-19 World Cup in Egypt. He is in line for a huge sophomore season.
That’s just the starting five, and it is as solid of a starting five as you will find anywhere. Sure, they are not elite 5-star certain first rounders like Kentucky trots out every year, but they are talented guys that have a ton of experience playing together. There is an advantage to be had in logging years of playing together as a team, one that does not come from talent alone.
Then you have the bench. Ryan Cline would be able to start for any team in America. Instead, we get to bring him off the bench and have him shoot open threes all day. A 41% three point shooter off the bench is automatic offense in this age of basketball.
And now is where things get interesting. For the first time in ages Purdue does not have a hulking post player to rotate in for another hulking post player. Haas is the only old school center that sets himself on the low block and dares people to move him. Has he even taken a shot outside of 10 feet in his entire career?
Purdue gets interesting with a returning player that feels like a new guy even though he is entering his fourth year in the program. Jacquil Taylor has lost two years to injury and played sparingly in 2015-16. Before that he battled injuries in high school. Many of the reviews on him even before he came to Purdue is that he was hugely talented, but injuries limited that. In Taiwan we got a glimpse of what he can do, finally. He rebounded extremely well and, thanks to his one game of extended run at Rutgers two years ago, we know he can stretch the floor a little with his shooting. If he comes in at the five he allows Purdue to throw a different look at teams. Yeah, he’s not going to be Biggie, but I think he definitely surprises some people.
You also have mystery man Matt Haarms, who has been practicing with the team in at least some capacity for months. He no longer has a redshirt as an option, so he will play, the question is how much? Can he be a poor man’s Moe Wagner?
You might even get some quality minutes from Grady Eifert, the walk-on who played well in Taiwan and has earned the leftover scholarship for this season. At the very least, Painter is not going to be afraid of playing him some first half emergency minutes.
Then you have the newcomers. Nojel Eastern is going to be a quality reserve from day 1. Eden Ewing was brought in to be a poor man’s Biggie as a JuCo transfer. He was still getting acclimated to Purdue over the summer, but he will get some minutes. Aaron Wheeler is a very interesting and athletic wing that could surprise. Finally, you have Sasha Stefanovic. He is the next “Never leave the white guy open” guy.
What does all this mean? People are sleeping on Purdue right now a little, and that is fine. It is hard to replace Biggie, but that is fine. This Purdue team is going to be very good again, and without Biggie it might even be a little more versatile. With Biggie you knew he was getting the ball in a big spot. That said, some of Purdue’s most clutch basketball last season came when it wasn’t forcing it to its first round draft pick. Think of how Purdue won the Maryland game without him (foul trouble) and how it lost at Iowa because it forced possessions to him.
Purdue may not be better without Biggie, but it will be different. Some of the best Purdue basketball has come from teams that were better than the sum of its parts, and that’s what we have this year. Instead of relying on one supremely talented player to carry us we now have five very good players that have played together for years. They can move the ball around, find that open man, and they have developed that sixth sense that only comes from a ton of experience together. That sixth sense manifests itself in the extra pass for a better shot, or the blind pass on the break for an easier layup.
I love that we are not having a midnight madness. I love that we are not making a huge event out of the first official practice. The celebration is not in the beginning of the season, it is in the end. There is work to do, and at Purdue we just get to work. today is a “welcome back to work” day because the real celebrations will be done in March.
So go ahead and sleep on Purdue. Don’t rank them. That’s fine. I still view this team’s goals as exactly the same: Compete for the Big Ten title (Michigan State will be awfully good), earn a top 3 seed in March, get to the second weekend of the tournament, then see what happens. Teams are judged on NCAA success, and that is what has eluded Purdue for decades. The tournament is all about matchups and if you can avoid a bad game at the worst time. The 2010-11 team was that way, as it got a three seed, but played a horrid game against a terrible matchup in VCU.
This team can be different though. This team is more than good enough to make a run. It has the experience to stay calm under pressure. It has won in some of the most hostile venues in the Big Ten at Michigan State, Maryland, and Indiana. This team will be good, but now it is time to find out if it will be legendary.
Let’s go defend OUR title.