It turns out, playing tougher teams is harder than playing an opening schedule of Fairfield, Ball State, Appalachian St., and Davidson.
Those are the four teams Purdue opened the season against last year on their way to a 4-0 start. Purdue is just 2-2, falling out of the top-25, after losses to Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns at home and a road trip to Milwaukee where the Boilers lost to Marquette. In both games, Purdue gave up leads, and struggled to find a consistent offensive threat late in the game.
Thankfully, Coach Matt Painter has proven so thoroughly that his teams get better as the season goes - and I mean, a lot better - that no one is freaking out about two close losses from two pretty good teams by a team that is very young.
So, hah, that’s not how Boiler fans work, or the internet, but I’m bored of scolding you. Passive aggression from here on out.
In 2019, the Boilers followed four easy wins by going 2-5 their next 7. They blew a 50-38 second half lead to Virginia Tech in the championship game of the Charleston Classic. Two games after, they blew a multi-possession lead with less than a minute on the clock at Florida St. Then they got handled by Michigan, inexplicably by Notre Dame, and then by Michigan St.
In 2018, Coach Painter had a squad full of seniors, they tossed out back to back blown games against Tennessee and Western Kentucky in creative late-game blow up fashion. (Western Kentucky was more of a full-game blow up.)
But when you watch Coach Painter after a bad loss early in the season, you notice something unsettling. Total calm. There isn’t worry in his voice, no strain to his face, no vein in his temple throbbing, no anger, there’s just the plan and the full season ahead. They need to do this, this, and this to get better.
They always get better.
In 2018, Purdue ripped off 19 straight wins after the loss to Western Kentucky and won the Big Ten title. In 2019, Purdue finished their final 20 games after that Michigan St. game by winning 17 and won the Big Ten title.
In 2018, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2019, the Elite Eight, and you know, should have been the Final Four.
Coach Painter’s teams get better. It’s not up for discussion or debate. His offensive system has evolved into one of the best in the country every single year. This team’s potential on defense is unquestionable. So Purdue blew two games early, it happens. The important question is what’s next? Where do they get better?
A trend that I didn’t see coming from last year, largely because we just didn’t see any evidence of it, is that there is a Purdue guard who looks fully capable of changing his role entirely and instead of just being a good defender that would occasionally find baskets, he’s turned into a point guard that can attack the offense, find open teammates, push the pace, orchestrate in and out of traffic, and make shots.
No, not Nojel Eastern, who is off to a somewhat slow and disappointing start to the season.
Instead, Eric Hunter Jr., coming into his second year at Purdue, is announcing himself to college basketball. He’s going to be a star.
This isn’t hyperbole. While Hunter looks rail skin, he’s 6’4” with long arms, and is twitchy quick and very fast. He does not need to muscle into people to be an elite defender. Instead, he is just always there, poking and shifting, hounding his opposition from opening tip to final whistle.
He’s advanced his game at every level. He’s leading the team in assists with 4 a game, grabbing 3.5 rebounds per game, and scoring just over 10 points a game. He’s taken 40 shots already which is about half of what he took all of last year. He’s shown a willingness to attack the basket, take open looks, make off the dribble shots, and throw down in transition.
He’s played the most minutes of any Boilermaker for Coach Painter. If you want to know why Newman, a nearly top-50 recruit, is redshirting, it’s almost certainly because Coach Painter saw this growth in Hunter in the off-season.
He’s the perfect counter part to Eastern on both sides of the floor. Hunter possesses the shot making chops that Eastern is unlikely to develop at this level. Eastern’s jumper looks improved, but it’s still miles away from a viable offensive option. Any concern about a bully guard can be solved by putting Eastern or Proctor on them.
In the game against Texas it was Hunter that took the ball at half court and darted to the basket. He got to the rim, but a high challenge forced a difficult lay up at the rim that missed. These are the growing pains, but you can teach how to finish around taller players - ask Carsen Edwards, who in one year went from missing everything at the rim, to unstoppable (please, Hunter, give Joey Burton a call) between his freshman and sophomore year. You can’t teach a player to want those shots. Scoring is a skill, but it’s also DNA. You either are or you aren’t.
Hunter Jr. was unstoppable in high school, a scorer at heart, and it was impressive to watch him shift to a periphery piece on a really good Purdue team last year and fill in the gaps. This year, Edwards and Ryan Cline are gone, and Purdue’s biggest gaps demands a ball dominant guard to take over some of the scoring burden.
Jahaad Proctor has been very good, but he can’t do it alone.
When Purdue ends its season near the top of the Big Ten again, and finds themselves with another good seed in the NCAA Tournament it will not be a surprise. This is what Coach Painter teams do.
Neither should it surprise you when Eric Hunter Jr. is a big reason why and an All Big Ten selection.