At this point, it might be time to admit defeat. The Crossroads Classic was clearly a bad idea. A device by the other Indiana teams to knock Purdue down a peg early on in the season when Coach Painter’s team are struggling to find their identity.
It’s borderline cruel to set up this big event, knowing full well, it will be the stamp on a concerning early season slide, that will ultimately not matter but will give talking heads and fans with a certain complex plenty to shriek about.
(Plus, there’s that one time we came back and won again Notre Dame a few years ago and that was pretty fun.)
Through the first half, and a good chunk of the second in Butler’s 70-61 victory over the Boilermakers, it didn’t seem there was going to be much to take away from the game besides this is a much different Purdue team than last year, and it’s unclear if there was enough scoring on this team to be a challenge in the Big Ten.
Then something happened. Coach Painter took out Jahaad Proctor, who has been struggling the last few games, and Nojel Eastern who has been thoroughly disappointing to start the season.
Instead of relying on his senior transfer, and the most experienced guard on his roster, Coach Painter went young. He threw in Isaiah Thompson, true freshman, and sophomore’s Aaron Wheeler and Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter Jr. and big man Trevion Williams.
The next few minutes, Purdue looked like a different team. Despite the lack of experience, the lack of size, Purdue went from a slow, methodical team into one capable of pressuring offenses, forcing turnovers, and getting on the move.
On paper, the offensive success makes sense. Hunter and Thompson were two of the most dynamic high school scorers coming out of the state of Indiana in the last few years. Sasha is the team’s best shooter. Wheeler is the all-around best athlete with a serviceable jumper. Trevion Williams struggled offensively this game, but he’s still the team’s best passer, and the best scorer in the post in the Big Ten.
But this wasn’t what stood out watching the game in real time. Instead, something changed in Purdue’s dynamic. A team that had looked at times aloof, a lot inept, and generally incapable of knocking down shots started to make shots. More encouraging, in fact, the team put up a fight.
A fight that hasn’t always been there this year. One of the most glaring omissions on this year’s team compared to last year. Last year’s team of course, had Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline who could carry a team entirely on their back and who had the kind of consistent fight you get with the great ones.
But Coach Painter found a handful of players who pulled some of those intangibles on the court and nearly brought the Boilers back on a night where they didn’t appear to have it at all.
Thompson is the smallest player on the court. He doesn’t look like a college player stature wise, but he is fearless, hounds ball carriers, and is not afraid.
Eric Hunter Jr. has been nothing short of a revelation. He does everything well and is more and more willing to take over the offense and scoring this team needs. Stefanovic is close. He’s a few shots going in away from catching fire.
Wheeler is still most comfortable as the fourth or fifth option. Someone capable of knocking down shots when left open and grabbing offensive rebounds.
Williams is capable of running an entire offense and gobbling rebounds in the post. But those pieces had not found it consistently with a roster that has struggled to find cohesion. But in those few minutes, Coach Painter caught a glimpse of Purdue’s future and perhaps present. A unit of dogs willing to attack and press and go at it.
Matt Haarms will be back, hopefully soon, and his athleticism would have made a big difference against a Butler squad with a bunch of brick walls for big men.
Despite the 7-5 record, Coach Painter’s squads have been here before. His teams get better once they get into the conference schedule. But they don’t just get better by accident. Instead, small windows into units that work, tweaks to scheme, getting comfortable, and finding the players that you can count on when games get hard.
Painter might have found his five.