A strange thing occurred this morning. For the past month I’ve been living in South Carolina, far from my Boilermakers and the oncoming season. This is the first time in four years I will not be watching the Boilers from press row. But that’s a sad story so let’s go back to the strange.
For the four weeks of working here, I’ve left my apartment at about 6:45, taking I-85 north to Greer, arriving in the parking lot just as the sun started to peak over the horizon, leaking a purplish dark hue into the previously night black sky.
But on this too early Monday, the sun was already out, bright and yellow and dazzling, greeting me as I scraped the ice off my windows.
Obviously, I am leading you to a forced metaphor, about change and bright futures and how the Boilers have risen like the too-early sun - and unashamed as I am, okay, I’m a little ashamed - but it honors a remark when your entire sky changes color.
For Purdue the colors have been changing for a while, but a sort of day light’s saving time has happened in West Lafayette after last season. There is no subtlety when someone flips on the lights first thing in the morning.
When pundits woke up from their off-season slumber, they walked outside to see a new world, one where Painter doesn’t have to rebuild a team in one year and then get approval and notice, after the fact, that Purdue is a good team once again. It is assumed.
Purdue lost an incredible amount of offensive firepower and talent last year. Carsen Edwards was as electric a Boilermaker as anyone who has put on the old gold and black. His run in March included two 42 point performances. He nearly single-handedly beat the National Champions and an unjustly amount of bad luck had to occur in those three seconds to keep Purdue out of the Final Four.
Ryan Cline was maligned throughout much of his career,when the truth was always before us. He was a talented player, an otherworldly shooter, and just had the bad timing to play behind Dakota Mathias for three years. His performance against Tennessee in the Sweet 16 is one of the all-time great shooting performances in the NCAA’s. His step-back three to tie the game late to put Purdue in the Elite Eight should be shown on repeat across campus before every class. It’s the best single shot I’ve seen in person.
Grady Eifert was never the player either of those two were, but he was the heart of the team, a perfect representation of the program, one of the team’s best defenders, a good three-point shooter, and a damn fine player.
These kinds of losses to a team would normally merit waves of panic. Rebuilding would be mentioned as if that was the Purdue mascot’s middle name.
But something strange happened last year. Coach Painter finally broke through. After knocking on the door from the other side of Sweet Sixteen losses again and again, Ryan Cline finally turned the knob and Carsen Edwards hit it with a sledge hammer and the Boilermakers were a missed free throw, a missed rebound, an absurd tip, an even crazier pass, a quick flying floater away from cutting down the nets and making their first Final Four under Painter’s tenure.
And because media and coverage and narratives are silly, Painter is now one of those coaches. He’s clearly been one of those coaches for a while, but now it’s okay to mention. Which is why despite losing his two best players, Purdue will come into the 2019-2020 season ranked inside the top-25.
So let’s celebrate that fact by giving 5 predictions on the season.
Matt Haarms will lead the team in scoring.
Hey, I’m not starting out easy, okay? All the hype has been about Eastern and Wheeler in the off-season. Both are sporting better looking jump shots, and both will play a ton and will rack up transition points. But Haarms has gotten better each year. He flashed a mid-range jumper last year, and showed a willingness to take three-point shots (25 attempts last year). He’s also a nightmare rolling to the hoop, using his unusual length and quickness to get easy dunks.
The variety of ways he can score and the good percentage looks will make him the most consistent scorer on the team. Even though Purdue’s big men depth is exciting as any in the Big Ten, Haarms is the most versatile big man and will be able to play the 4 and 5 in lineups. He averaged 9.4 point per game last year, and I expect that to raise to 16.
Purdue will have 5 players average double-digits this year.
Purdue had just two players average double-digits last year, Carsen Edwards (24.3) and Ryan Cline (12.0). The offense ran through Edwards and Cline, and they were far and away the best offensive scorers on the team. This year, Purdue’s offense will run through the post for large stretches, through pick and rolls with Eastern and Proctor, they’ll get a lot of transition buckets, and everything else will be triggered off Sasha Stefanovic working off the ball on the perimeter.
Purdue’s best offensive player might be coming off the bench in Trevion Williams who was already a dominant post presence and who is now in better shape and having the knowledge and experience of a college basketball season on his belt.
The scoring will come from a lot of different hands.
Sasha Stefanovic will make 100 threes this year.
There’s a chance when all is said and done, Stefanovic leaves Purdue as their all-time leading 3-point shooter. Stefanovic was uneven in his freshman season, but that isn’t a bad thing. His highs were, frankly, more than I thought they’d be. His shot is already one of the purest in college basketball, and he’s quicker off the ball than he looks and has decent size.
Coach Painter’s offense has evolved over the years to constantly threaten defenses with shooters, particularly coming hard off cuts where the shooter go from one baseline to the other, catching screens from big men and exploding to the wings to get open looks or draw multiple defenders and open up the floor. That will now be Stefanovic’s role this year, a role we saw Cline and Edwards redefine last year, both making over 100 three-pointers, and making Purdue’s offense one of the toughest to guard in the country.
Stefanovic redshirted his freshman year. That means this is his third year in this system. That’s generally when Purdue’s shooters have exploded under Painter. Stefanovic is going to turn heads this year. Oh, and because of the redshirt, this will just be the start, we’ll get two more years of him .
Purdue will be top 15 in offense and defense efficiency ratings in Kenpom’s system.
First of all, this is a good thing. You can pretty much give up any hope of winning a National Title if you’re not top 15 in both categories.
Purdue has, against its reputation, struggled to have a defense that qualifies for these parameters. They were just the 34th best defense last year while their offense has been one of the best in the country. They were 4th in 2019, 2nd in 2018, but failed to be top 30 defensively (granted they were just outside at 31st and 34th).
This year’s Boilermakers has the best collection of defenders, length, and athleticism we’ve had in years. It starts with Nojel Eastern, a middle-linebacker playing point guard, with the quickness and size to guard the opposing players best offensive player - no matter what position they play - and ruin their entire day. It ends with Matt Haarms, who is well over 7 feet, quick enough to get to almost any shot, and brings all the energy. They want to defend. They want to ruin your trip to West Lafayette, and they now have help with players like Emannuel Dowuona, Brandon Newman, Aaron Wheeler, Jahaad Proctor, Eric Hunter Jr., and a slimmed down Trevion Williams. Besides Williams, all these players should be plus defenders.
Purdue wins 23 games and finished in the top 10.
We’re gonna find out about some of the youngsters early. Purdue hosts Texas in the second game of the season and then travels to Marquette before a couple light weights lead into the early season tournament in Destin. Purdue started slow last year then exploded in Big Ten playing, tying with Michigan St. to win the conference.
Painter and his staff is as good as there is at developing young talent, and I’m not sure Painter has had a collective with this much talent, athleticism, and length. Eastern will be a bona fide all Big Ten player, as will Wheeler and Haarms, and Proctor will add experience and a toughness at the two guard that will help fill in the giant crater of a hole Carsen Edwards leaves behind. Sasha should be able to mostly replicate Cline’s shooting.
From top to bottom this should be a better team than last year. If Williams ascends even a little and can consistently be the player he was at his high points this year, if Eastern can make a jump shot, if Haarms gets even a little more disciplined on defense, and Wheeler’s exhibition shooting carries over, this is a team without holes.
That said, Edwards and Cline showed last year, in the biggest moments, there’s nothing like stars who can just take over games. Does Purdue have those kinds of player on this team? I think they do.
We’ll start finding out tonight. Purdue basketball is here.