Purdue is more than set in the frontcourt. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey are two of the best big men in the conference, if not the entire country. Mason Gillis is a warrior and will be complimented by Trey Kaufman-Renn and Caleb Furst. It is the backcourt, and the inconsistencies there, that will make or break Purdue in 2021-22.
We all know we have a budding superstar in Jaden Ivey. Purdue’s run to two Big Ten titles in three years came when Purdue had multiple steady options at guard, however. Carsen Edwards was great all three years, but he was aided significantly by having Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson his first two years, then Ryan Cline in his final season. Inconsistent guard play hampered the 2019-20 team, and this year Purdue was great when it had guards complimenting Ivey, but when others struggled, Purdue struggled. We only need look at the North Texas defeat to see that.
There will be experience returning. Brandon Newman has shown some flashes. Isaiah Thompson has had a few moments, but will at least be entering year three. Then you have Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. Purdue will rely on them heavily next year and they have shown they can be difference makers. It is consistency that they need. With Hunter playing the point for the most part everything starts with him.
Eric Hunter Jr. – Senior in 2021-22
2018-19 Stats: 36 Games played, 1 start. 12.6 mpg, 2.2 ppg 1.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, 30.3% FG, 21.7% 3FG, 71.4% FT
2019-20 Stats: 31 Games played, 30 starts. 31.5 mpg, 10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 41.5% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 76.1% FT
2020-21 Stats: 24 Games played, 23 starts. 30.6 mpg, 8.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 37.1% FG, 27.2% 3FG, 80.9% FT
Hunter was very up and down this past season. He missed the first four games of the year with a knee injury, then came back for the Miami game, where he debuted with 11 points. Early on he was pretty good, topping out with an 18 point, 8 assist, 5 rebound game against Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. He was in double figures the first four games of his season, but only reached that mark six more times in the remaining 20 games.
He still impacted the game with his passing though. He had 7 assists in the win over Minnesota. In the home win over Penn State he had 14 points and 5 assists. It was late in the season that his production waned dramatically, with the low point being an 0 for 4 game in the home win over Indiana where he was scoreless with one assist and four fouls in 30 minutes against the Hoosiers.
What kept him on the floor was his defense. Hunter proved to be Purdue’s best perimeter player for more of the season. When you can be the primary defender on a guard like Marcus Carr and hold him to 6 points on 2 of 13 shooting like Hunter did in the win over the Golden Gophers you can defend anyone in the league.
Unfortunately, even the defense started to slip a little late. Duane Washington Jr. had some big moments in the Ohio State loss. In the North Texas loss, where all of Purdue’s guards struggled defensively, Javion Hamlet had 24 on 7 of 18 shooting while also grabbing 12 rebounds and 5 assists.
If I had to guess (and granted, this is merely a guess), I would say Hunter lost his legs a bit as the season went on. Just look at his 3-point shooting. Last year he was a decent 35.5%. He was far from a bomber, but he was dangerous and could hit open looks. This year the ability to hit those open looks was gone late in the year. In the last four games combined he was 1 of 12 from long range. After going 3 of 4 against Indiana in Bloomington he had just two games, home against Michigan State and at Penn State, where he hit more than one three.
Eric is too good of a player to have his three-point percentage drop by 7.3% in a year, but if his legs aren’t there because his offseason conditioning was limited, that could be an explanation.
The largest thing we need from him is consistency. When he is on, Purdue has been very good. He was the team leader in assists and he can definitely get the offense moving with his passing. Since Trevion Williams and Zach Edey cannot be guarded one-on-one and demand a double team every time the touch the ball there are open shots on the perimeter. Hunter can be the beneficiary of those looks, so he has to knock them down.
It is year four for Hunter. In Purdue’s system, that is when guards really come into their own. Given what Ivey is going to do, Hunter needs to be a consistent 11 point, 3 or 4 assist guy every night, and there is no reason he can’t get there. He has the ability to drive, he can hit free throws, and we have seen he can shoot at 35% or better from three over the course of a season. That’s why I am confident he can bounce back. We have seen what he is capable of.
His defense is also critical. We have seen there are games where he can put a player in a box and almost completely erase him from the equation. Once Purdue fixes its defensive rotations that will be even more pronounced. Let’s face it: Purdue sucked when it came to giving up open threes teams were able to whip the ball around and find the open man. We tended to over help, and there were several games we were helped by other teams just not hitting their open looks. North Texas didn’t miss. That game exposed Purdue’s defensive liabilities as a team. That can be fixed though, because freshmen become sophomores. Once it is fixed, Hunter’s defense will be a difference maker.