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Purdue Basketball: Sorting Out the Rotation

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Maybe I can end the “why did X” player redshirt question once and for all....probably not, but I’m going to try.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This year has been a frustrating slog so far, I won’t argue that point. I’ve watched in abject horror as the Boilermaker offense labored to reach 20 points by halftime (on more than one occasion). The ruins of my once fully stocked liquor cabinet tell the tale of the 2020 Purdue basketball team better than any words I could muster for this post.

Things haven’t been great, to say the least.

I understand the angst, the anger, and the urge to second guess every decision that put this Purdue team at 12-10 heading into February. For the first time in a long while, I thinks it’s fair to say that this team has under performed their talent level. This hasn’t been Coach Painter’s finest hour.

At the same time, you can see the original plan coming into the season, and it makes more and more sense with every Isaiah Thompson 3 pointer. This team has a myriad of issues, player development being at the top (which is strange to say about Purdue), but the rotation, and the reasoning behind the Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis redshirt, isn’t one of the them.

The plan, going into the season was sound, but sometimes things that look good on paper, don’t translate to the floor. This is one such occasion.

To understand the 2020 team, you’ve got to look back to what Purdue lost off the 2019 team, and how Matt Painter planned on filling those holes in 2020.

2019

SG - Carsen Edwards

Role: Late shot clock scorer

2020

SG - Jahaad Proctor

The theoretical role: Late shot clock scorer

Outcome

No one was going to replace Carsen Edwards 1 for 1. Replacing his volume shooting and scoring was going to be a team effort. Proctor’s role was to take over the late shot clock scoring. He’s the guy that was supposed to make something happen when the motion offense didn’t get anyone an open shot early in the clock.

Last year, Purdue had the luxury of running offense early, and clearing out for Carsen late. Purdue needed Proctor to fill that role in the offense. He didn’t need to average 20+ like Carsen, but the Boilermakers needed him to be a scorer. The early returns were promising, but as the season kicked into full gear, Proctor’s lack of athleticism took him out of games.

While Carsen was an explosive athlete who could get to the rim at will, making his step back jumper deadly, Jahaad is more of a crafty scorer who relies on getting defenders off balance and beating them with finesse. Once teams stopped respecting his ability to get to the basket, his step back game suffered, and it took him a while to figure out how to score. He’s looked much better recently, and his step back 3 against Northwestern helped keep the Boilermaker season on life support. Let’s hope it give him a boost in confidence, because Purdue needs him to score the basketball in February.

2019

SF - Ryan Cline

Role: Floor spacing 3 point specialist

2020

SF - Sasha Stephanovic

Theoretical Role: Floor spacing 3 point specialist

Outcome

This was the obvious move for Purdue. Matt claims to recruit the best shooter in the Midwest every year and Sasha was that guy in the 2017 class. His shooting ability earned him a scholarship. He doesn’t have to be a Cline clone, but he has to shoot the ball from deep for Purdue to reach their full potential on offense.

At home, this transition has worked well. Sasha provides excellent spacing at Mackey arena. In some ways, he’s a more athletic version of Cline (minus the ability to feed the post) when he’s playing at home. The issue, as we all know, is his baffling inability to shoot on road. If I were asked to identify the single biggest factor in Purdue’s road woes on offense, it would be Sasha’s inability to shoot the basketball in front of a hostile crowd.

2019

PF - Grady Eifert

Role - Stretch 4, hustle rebounder

2020

PF - Aaron Wheeler

Theoretical Role - Stretch 4, athletic rebounder

Outcome

Wow, out of all 3 replacements, I was most confident in Wheeler’s ability to transition to the starting stretch 4 Purdue’s offense desperately needs. I think most people assumed he’d be an upgrade at the position. No offense to Grady, but in theory, Wheeler can do things on the basketball court that he wasn’t physically capable of doing. The results, needless to say, have been less than ideal. Some might even say they’ve been cataclysmic to the offense. Wheeler’s inexplicable regression from the 36% 3 point shooter who went 4-8 in the NCAA Tournament including 2 clutch 3’s against Tennessee to the 22% shooter mired in a painful to watch, rim rattling, drought has killed Purdue’s spacing.

When you play a non-shooter like Nojel Eastern at PG because he’s the best on ball defender in the nation, you have to make up for the lack of shooting somewhere else. Purdue needs 3 shooters on the floor to give Trevion Williams space to operate. When you’ve only got 2 shooters in your lineup, the motion offense turns into a stagnant insult to basketball. I pin most of Purdue’s offensive struggles squarely on the 4 position. If Wheeler has the season we all expected, I think we’re looking at a 4 or 5 loss Purdue squad. Instead, we’re looking at 10 loss team.

Rotation

Going into the season, Matt had a clear rotation in mind, with roles fairly well defined. It looked a little something like this:

PG: Nojel / Hunter Jr

SG: Proctor / Thompson

SF: Sasha / Proctor

PF: Wheeler / E-Bo

C: Williams / Haarms

Newman/Thompson/Gillis

That’s a clear 10 deep depth chart stocked with veteran players. The only surprise was which freshman avoided the redshirt. I think most people had Brandon Newman penciled in where Thompson ended up in the rotation, but as his confidence grows, it’s clear Matt made the correct choice.

Thompson, above everything else, is a shooter. Newman is the more physically developed guard, but his game is similar to Hunter Jr and Proctor. If Purdue doesn’t land Proctor, Newman doesn’t redshirt. Once Proctor was added to the roster, Newman became the 3rd combo guard on the roster. Nojel’s contributions on the defensive end, regardless of his offensive, offensive game, make him indispensable for Purdue. There isn’t enough minutes to justify a 3rd combo guard, so Newman gets to develop his game for a year.

Thompson gets the nod over Newman not because he’s a better overall player. I’d take Newman in a game of 1 on 1. He gets the nod because he’s an elite shooter, and once Sasha moved into the starting lineup to replace Cline, Purdue needed a shooter off the bench, and he’s filled that role admirably.

Isaiah is currently shooting 36% from 3. To put that in perspective, that would have made him the 3rd most accurate 3 point shooter on last years team behind Cline and Sasha. This season, Thompson might be Purdue’s best 3 point shooter on the road, since Sasha’s jump shot doesn’t travel with him to away games. Painter made the right call on which guard to redshirt.

That brings us to Mason Gillis and the troublesome 4 spot. This is where everyone needs to step back and take a broader look at things. Yes, I think Gillis could potentially contribute on this team at this point in the season.

I don’t think he would have been able to contribute much to start the season after a year off from competitive basketball.

His game conditioning alone would need to get back to normal before he contributed more than a few minutes at a time. Then you have to wonder what sort of confidence he would have in his knee to start the year. If Matt could have predicted Wheeler’s slide into basketball oblivion (although I saw some good signs against Northwestern and am pulling hard for Aaron) Gillis avoids the redshirt. Since no one saw that coming, burning a year of Gillis’s eligibility being the 3rd power forward in the rotation made no sense.

In retrospect, I would love to have Mason available this season, but taking a longer view, I understand why Matt decided to keep him on the bench for a year. I think Matt regrets some redshirt decisions he didn’t make earlier in his career. Cline and Ryne Smith both come to mind when I think about guys Matt would love to go back and retroactively redshirt instead of trying to squeeze them into the rotation as freshmen. Not having Mason available this season might hurt us slightly in the short term, but having him available as a 5th year senior on what should be one of Painter’s more talented teams (if the Ivey and Morton live up to the hype) will be indispensable. I’ll trade 8-10 minutes of Gillis this year for the potential of a 5th year starter down the road.

In Conclusion

There is plenty to complain about with this Purdue team, but I believe Painter made the right roster moves with the players available and his patience with Newman and Gillis could pay off big long term.

In the meantime....we suffer short term.

Such is life.