It is an odd time for Purdue Men’s Basketball. For the last three seasons there has been a very long lead up to the season. Not only did the team have high expectations each time, with football in the toilet during the end of the Hazell era Purdue fans just wanted some good news. In 2015-16 it was all about the debut of Caleb Swanigan, and he helped Purdue to a 26-7 season before the Big Ten Tournament final and the Little Rock loss.
In 2016-17 expectations were even higher. Swanigan returned and Purdue won the Big Ten. It was the pinnacle of the past eight years, but Purdue was run off the court in the second half by Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
Then you get to last year. Swanigan was gone, but Purdue returned four seniors and looked like the perfect team with each spot filled. We were so excited we watched early season computer feeds from Taipei and the World University Games. A pair of close losses in the Bahamas had people losing their minds, but then we ripped off 19 games in a row and got to No. 3 in the nation. Suddenly a team that was supposed to be pretty good was in the rare air of “is this FINALLY THE team that has success in March?” For much of January there were three teams that were far and away the best in college basketball: Virginia, Villanova, and Purdue. All three had varying ends. Villanova won it all. Virginia suffered the most embarrassing defeat in college basketball history. Purdue quietly bowed out in the Sweet 16 somewhere in the middle.
I recognize I am in the minority here, but I found the 2017-18 season incredibly frustrating. First, you had the losses down in the Bahamas. The Tennessee game as the result of giving up a tying three-pointer at the end of regulation. The Western Kentucky game was the result of an off game. The fire Painter crowd came out in full force, then Purdue started its 19-game win streak by bludgeoning the team with the No. 1 overall pick.
From there we were right to get excited. Purdue looked great in getting out to a 12-0 start in league play. In that run we beat a Michigan team twice that would go on to be national runner-up. We exorcised demons against Butler, Michigan, and Louisville. We were winning in a variety of ways. For two months we were unstoppable.
Then you had the three game slide. We needed a rebound against Ohio State. That’s it. Get one defensive rebound and we at least win the Big Ten. When pushed against Ohio State and Michigan State in the final minutes Purdue got tight. We led by 12 with 10 minutes left at home against the Buckeyes and by 2 with a minute left at Michigan State. We dropped both. We then lost a game at Wisconsin we had no business losing. Despite going 15-3 we joined our own Purdue team from 10 years earlier as the only teams to win 15 games in conference play, but not at least a share of the league title.
The frustration continued in March. Michigan finally got the best against us in the Big Ten tournament final, a no name forward from Cal State Fullerton pulled Haas to the ground and shattered his elbow, and once again, fate conspired against us. A more athletic team in Texas Tech dominated the last six minutes and turned a 58-55 game with 5:45 left into a 13 point win. I don’t know if we beat Villanova with a healthy Isaac Haas in the Elite 8, but we were twice a game away from facing them (in the Bahamas and in the NCAAs). I certainly would have liked a shot, and with a healthy Haas if you go down swinging against a team like that who was fantastic in March you can at least rest knowing you lost to the best.
The closing seconds on the bench were hard to watch if you were a Purdue fan. The blank stares. The towels on shoulders. We knew it was the final go round for P.J. Thompson, Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and Isaac Haas. We had seen them at their best for two whole months.
Simply put, it wasn’t supposed to end this way.
I say it was a frustrating season because we won a school record 30 games, but there was no hardware. It was a season of seconds. We were second in the World University Games to Lithuania. We didn’t win our in-season tournament. We were a rebound short of a second consecutive Big Ten regular season title. We finished second in New York at the B1G tourney. Then the NCAAs, our long time stumbling block, ended partially because of an injury at the absolute worst time to a guy who had been a rock for four years. It was a very, very good year, but we were inches from the greatness we have craved for decades. We saw it. We knew it was possible. Instead it was ripped away just as we thought it was finally coming. It wasn’t just one thing you could blame, either. Coach Painter didn’t miss the box out vs. Ohio State. It wasn’t one of our guys that shattered Haas’ elbow. Miles Bridges happens to be a really good player that made a challenged shot at Michigan State.
Then you had to deal with the Fire Painter crowd that seemed to wait and relish even the smallest slipups. They are very vocal minority among Purdue fans and every coach has faults, but there remains absolutely zero basis to fire him and they still seem to wait for any loss.
So now we’re at 2018-19. Practice started yesterday and we have little idea how this team is going to perform. We do know it will be different. You don’t lose four seniors like we did and expect things to be business as usual. That’s the nature of college basketball, however. We can’t hang on to guys who don’t go to the NBA forever until they retire. They come through like comets, and each year is different.
The expectations of the past few seasons are not there. Purdue could contend for a Big Ten title, but there are far more questions than in the past few seasons. We’re integrating five freshmen and a graduate transfer to one starter and four rotation guys from a season ago. We’ll still be good. We’ll probably make the NCAA Tournament because that should be the bare minimum expectation every season at Purdue. Anything beyond that is a mystery.
We do know we might have the best player in the country in Carsen Edwards. At the Northwestern football game I was coming back from Morgantown to my seat after halftime and happened to walk past him. He looked like a physical specimen, stronger than at any point last season. He gave a hearty fist bump and walked on, but he was carrying himself well with the “I am now THE guy” air. It wasn’t in a bad way, either. It was a quiet confidence. When you have a player of his caliber you can go a long way, and he can erase a lot of mistakes elsewhere by going for 40+ on a random night like he did at Illinois. The NCAAs are won by guards, and with Carsen there is always the chance he just goes crazy in March. If Kemba Walker can drag UConn to a national title it had zero business winning can’t Carsen do it with Purdue?
From there, there are questions. How does Matt Haarms improve offensively? Can Ryan Cline be the shooter that Dakota Mathias was now that he is THE guy there? Did Nojel Eastern discover a jump shot? How do Aaron Wheeler and Sasha Stefanovic figure in after a redshirt season? What does Evan Boudreaux bring to the table as a stretch 4 with his experience? Does Eric Hunter become a strong contributor from day 1? Do Trevion Williams and Emmanuel Dowuona bring enough to avoid a redshirt year?
It’s an extremely young team. Only Cline and former walk-on Grady Eifert are seniors and both have very limited experience as starters. Boudreaux is a graduate transfer, but didn’t play anywhere last season. Cline, Eifert, Eastern, and Haarms have had moments as reserves, but it is asking a lot of them to have them replicate Mathias, Edwards, Thompson, and Haas, respectively. The freshmen will have to contribute too.
In a way I have dreaded the coming of this season. We’re not as good on paper as last year’s team that ultimately and cruelly fell short. It can be hard to get excited when we take obvious steps back in so many areas. There is talent though. Wheeler and Stefanovic learned a lot last season and showed glimpses in Taiwan. Hunter is a very promising scorer. I like Williams as a poor man’s Biggie. If Dowuona can be a rim protector and rebounder he can contribute.
This will be a different look Purdue, too. We’re going to be more athletic. We’re going to spread the floor more. We’re going to be more guard oriented. If anything, we’re going to be a more “modern” looking team that can spread the floor and shoot the lights out, mostly because we have to. We’re not going to have Hammons/Haas lumbering down the court, setting up on the block, and physically dominating. We’re going to see more slashing to the basket. There will be more ball movement. This is all out of necessity, and that is a good thing.
If Purdue answers its questions and find chemistry it can be a great season. We’ll know early, too. Starting with the Charleston tournament the schedule is brutal. We might be a preseason top 25 team, but so are Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Florida State in our early schedule. Games against Wichita State, Texas, and Notre dame won’t be easy, either. A 20-game Big Ten slate also does no favors, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Indiana all get their shots at us while Nebraska, Maryland, and even Penn state can’t be overlooked.
It’s going to be an interesting year, to say the least. It reminds be a little of 2012-13 when A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis were freshmen. That class had a lot of promise and an experienced junior guard in Terone Johnson, but ultimately did not mesh. This group is better. There is no question Carsen is better than Terone, and there is a bit more experience with Haarms, Eastern, Cline, et al. My boldest prediction is that Purdue will make the NCAA Tournament because, well, we’re a good enough program to rarely miss it. Carsen is good enough to drag us to 23 wins by himself.
As for anything else, we just don’t know, and that could be fun.