Allegedly, basketball season starts in 43 days.
I say allegedly because I am confident it will actually start, but we have no idea of a schedule right now. We were originally supposed to start November 10th against Evansville, but that is all wiped clean now. We know we’re getting around 25 games, but the content of those games is unknown. Will we get only regional non-conference games? Will there still be a Cancun Challenge in Florida with Mississippi State and Clemson now that Illinois State pulled out? Will we get a 26-game Premier League-style full round robin for the Big Ten season (which is my pick. Dump the Big Ten Tournament and make it happen.)?
It is very weird to be in mid-October with football not even started and basketball not having so much as a schedule yet. When a schedule does come, however, we’re going to need patience, because I don’t think we’re going to quite have the season we’re accustomed to having since the Mathias-Haas-Thompson-Edwards class arrived.
I was thinking about this last night as I pondered the concept of the Delaney Dozen. If you’re unfamiliar with that term I came up with it near the end of the 2018 season when the Mathias-Haas-Thompson-Edwards class won in Champaign to clinch having at least one victory in all 14 Big Ten venues. Since Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference for the 2014-15 season only eight Purdue players (Isaac Haas, PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards, Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, Grady Eifert, and Jacquil Taylor) plus Peter Jok have successfully completed the challenge. A large reason for that is that Purdue prevented everyone else from getting it by refusing to lose in Mackey Arena.
The Boilers lost four Big Ten home games from the 2014-15 season through the 2018-19 season. Then last year we lost at home to Michigan, Penn State, Illinois, and Rutgers. They were all good teams a year ago and would likely have made the NCAA Tournament if there had been one, but even writing that out now seems shocking. When you throw in the Texas loss that makes the 2019-20 even more appalling, with the COVID cancellation of everything causing a form of amnesia about it all.
We can’t just hand wave it all away though. The 2019-20 edition of Purdue basketball was maddeningly inconsistent and frustrating. We twice blew out top 5 teams on our floor. We took a really good Florida State to overtime. We had our largest victory in Assembly Hall in decades. We also lost by double digits to an awful Nebraska team, needed a near miracle to beat Northwestern, and again, LOST MORE GAMES AT HOME THAN IN THE PREVIOUS FOUR SEASONS COMBINED!
As we enter a new season there are a lot of question marks. It feels a lot like the 2014-15 season where Purdue was extremely young, yet still had experience. For example:
· Both teams had the early departure of frustrating players that had seen a lot of minutes in the back court. 2014-15 lost Ronnie Johnson and this year Nojel Eastern is gone.
· Both teams returned a very promising big man, with A.J. Hammons in 2014-15 and Trevion Williams this year.
· Both teams lacked a scholarship senior on the roster, with Jon Octeus only joining the 2014-15 team very late in the game as the lone scholarship guy. Even then, Neal Beshears was a senior walk-on, and 2020-21 lacks even that!
· Both teams came after a transition year where things did not go as planned.
· Both teams had/have promising, but unproven freshmen that were/are going to play a lot. The Mathias-Haas-Thompson-Edwards quartet eventually went on to win a lot of games, with Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards coming in each of the next two years. Can Edey-Ivey-Morton-Newman-Gillis come close to that?
We have five freshmen that will play major minutes because of the redshirts for Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis. We’re essentially asking Eric Hunter Jr. and Trevion Williams to be Raphael Davis and AJ Hammons this year. They are now the elder statemen, yet they are only juniors. I know roster turnover is common in the college game, but of the team that came within seconds of the Final Four just 19 months ago only the four bench players in that game are left, and Sasha Stefanovic played all of one minute that night.
Patience is, indeed, needed with a season like the one we’re going to have. Purdue has experience, but is still incredibly young. It is relying on juniors to lead when Painter’s best teams have been known for their seniors. There is no question there is talent, but even talent needs time to grow and adjust to the college game. Not everyone can be the Baby Boilers or the Mathias-Haas-Thompson-Edwards (seriously, they need a nickname) class that has almost immediate success.
It also doesn’t help that the Big Ten is going to be absolutely loaded this coming year. The latest ESPN bracketology had nine teams getting in from the conference this coming year, and there was a somewhat plausible argument last season for 12 because even with Purdue’s record it had at least a small chance at an at large bid before everything was shut down. Iowa (!?!) and Wisconsin were projected as 2 seeds in the latest bracketology. Michigan State is still Michigan State. Illinois is going to be really good. Michigan and Ohio State have talent. Rutgers is going to be solid. Even Indiana has a lot of talent and could overcome Archie Miller’s Archie-ness.
I have long felt like this season for both Purdue football and basketball will be a building block year. It is a year where we begin to see growth in several areas, with everything really paying off during the 2021 football season and 2021-22 basketball season. Both Purdue teams are still “young” but have experience. That youth will gain even more experience and gather more talent for the following season. For football, Brohm’s 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes that were light years better than anything Hazell or Hope ever brought in will gain more experience and break out in 2021. For coach Painter, it is his dynamic back court of Ethan Morton and Jaden Ivey that will come together with a senior Trevion Williams and plenty of depth all over.
There is reason for hope though. Despite the 16-15 record and the transfer of two starters Purdue was still very, very close in a lot of games last year (much like football with its five losses on the final play of the game the last two seasons). The Boilers lost overtime games to Florida State, Rutgers, and Michigan. It blew late leads against Texas and Marquette. It also had moments of transcendent basketball like the Virginia and Michigan State games plus both Iowa games. We’re not THAT far off, really, and with a little more consistency the offense will be fine as the defense matures. To me, the bare minimum expectation remains the same: At least make the NCAA Tournament.
We have to be patient though.