If there is one positive to take from Purdue’s current situation, it is difficult to get worse than last season. After an ugly season within the Big Ten bubble, several changes were made to the team in hopes of compiling a lineup that is more competitive within the Big Ten. The Boilermakers come into the 2022 season with quite a few reinforcements, hoping to make a push closer to the middle of the conference.
The last season was a weird season in which the Big Ten teams stayed in a bubble, only playing themselves. At least they played the season, unlike some other conferences. It was also the last season, at least for now, for the men’s tennis versions of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Minnesota Golden Gophers, as the universities decided to cut the programs. It is certainly sad for fans of those programs, but maybe they will return in several years. 2021 may have been an eventful year around NCAA men’s tennis, but it was certainly a year to forget for Purdue. They won a hard-fought opening match at Nebraska to start the season, then promptly lost fourteen in a row to finish the season, never even getting more than two match points in that stretch. To top off the mess, a COVID-19 outbreak within the program cancelled the final matchup of the season, and Purdue did not appear in the Big Ten tournament. Athell Bennett was sitting the season out, and Maksymilian Raupuk decided to end his Purdue career early, so the Boilermakers’ depth issue was exacerbated. The younger players were forced into bigger roles, and they took lumps with only Big Ten teams to compete against. It all led to an ugly 1-14 season to forget. Had Purdue been able to play a nonconference season, they probably would have a loss to a low-major or mid-major team to complain about, but they also would have likely come closer to a .500 overall record.
The Team/Arrivals & Departures:
The Boilermakers are bringing in a lot of new blood to this roster, and given how last season went, it is necessary. The addition with the most short-term impact is Athell Bennett. After sitting out the 2021 season, he makes one final push to put his name in the Purdue record books. Bennett was one of the top players in the entire NCAA during the start of the 2020 season, and there was a very real chance that not only would he make the NCAA Singles Tournament, but he would also do some damage while he was there. However, the complete shutdown due to COVID-19 prevented this. There will always be some sense of "what if", but this is a new chance for him. As well, Purdue brings in a freshman class that included three five-star players and just missed the top 25 in the nation according to tennisrecruiting.net. Gabriele Brancatelli, Piotr Galus, Julen Morgan, and Rohan Sachdev all start their Purdue careers this season, and all of them should be vying for playing time immediately. This should pose a challenge to guys like Milledge Cossu, Tomasz Dudek, and to some extent Sebastian Welch and Michal Wozniak. Hopefully that leads to a higher quality of play throughout the lineup, although the freshmen will probably need to get adjusted to the jump in difficulty from their high school leagues to the Big Ten. The only known departure from last year is Mateo Julio, who was the #1 singles player last year. His presence will be missed; but having Athell Bennett return softens this blow. As well, Santiago Galan is also not listed on the roster page anymore, so he may not be returning either.
Schedule and Predictions:
Given how last year went for the Boilermakers and the fact that a significant percentage of this team is pretty young, I would have expected that this nonconference season would have been quite soft to build up experience and confidence. However, it looks like Coach Gajdzik wants to challenge his guys early, as there are multiple road matches against Power 5 opponents in the nonconference schedule in a year where the majority of conference matches will be on the road. This makes it very difficult for the Boilermakers to realistically get more wins than losses, which is necessary for any postseason ambitions. However, if Purdue does achieve that benchmark, then they would have a strong NCAA resume. One other sidenote: when Purdue released the schedule, there was a mention that there could be matches added later in the season, so bear that in mind.
January 15: @Southern Methodist
Last year: 18-14, 1-4 American Athletic, No NCAA Appearance
Last year, Southern Methodist was a good team, but just not quite good enough. They were still consistently in the top fifty, and they pulled off some nice ranked wins, but they fell short in a couple of critical matches that could have launched them toward an NCAA appearance. Losing to IUPUI didn’t help their case. They lose their top doubles pairing from last year, and one of those guys was also one of their best singles players. However, they retain almost everyone else, and bring in a couple of transfers. With this in mind, I expect Purdue to fall a bit short in their opening match.
January 17: @Oklahoma
Last year: 11-15, 1-4 Big Twelve, NCAA Round of 32
It was not that long ago that Oklahoma was one of the top teams in the entire nation, but they have since slipped back to the "top 40" range. They are still a good team but will have to overcome some losses this season. Last season, they actually made the NCAA Tournament despite finishing the regular season with more losses than wins. Their schedule was quite difficult, and they had some nice wins, but I am surprised that they were allowed into the NCAA Tournament. As well, they lost their top two singles players from last season, but they bring in a strong freshman in Jordan Hasson, and the transfer of Baptiste Anselmo from Georgia should provide them extra depth. Based on Purdue’s lackluster record on the road against Power 5 opponents, I would guess that the Sooners take this match.
January 22: @Tulsa
Last year: 11-12, 3-3 American Athletic, No NCAA Appearance
Looking at both their overall seasons and the match they played against each other, Tulsa was almost exactly as good as Southern Methodist: consistently in the top fifty and able to rattle off a solid win from time to time, but just not quite good enough for an NCAA appearance. The Golden Hurricane also bring back almost every major contributor from last season. With this in mind, I would argue that Tulsa’s experience will likely bring them the victory this season.
January 23: @Wichita State
Last year: 15-9, 3-2 American Athletic, NCAA Round of 64
This is Purdue’s third opponent this season right around fortieth in the nation and the middle of the American Athletic conference. However, unlike the previous two, Wichita State made the NCAA Tournament last year, finishing with an extremely tight loss to Arizona State in the first round. To get back to the NCAAs, the Shockers will have to recover from losing their top two singles players who also functioned as their top doubles pairing. Pretty much every other major contributor from last year returns, but as previous Purdue seasons have shown, losing your top two guys on the lineup card can be devastating. Combine that with the influx of talent coming into West Lafayette, you could argue that Purdue could win this matchup. However, until I see some firm results, I’d say Wichita State is still the better team for now.
January 30: vs Chicago State
Last year: 6-16, 0-3 Western Athletic, No NCAA Appearance
After a challenging road trip to open their season, the Boilermakers return home to face some easy competition. Over the past three and a half seasons that I could find data for, Chicago State has won a total of seven matches against Division I competition. In the past, Purdue has been able to give guys opportunities that do not get to play a lot while still winning easily, and I expect that trend to continue here.
January 30: vs IUPUI
Last year: 5-14, 1-7 Horizon League, No NCAA Appearance
Last year was a weird year for IUPUI: they pulled off a massive upset of Southern Methodist that was a major anchor on their season, but also took some bad losses to Northern Kentucky and Saint Louis. They are not among the worst Division I teams anymore, but they are still considered one of the worst teams in the Horizon League. As such, Purdue should win without too much difficulty.
February 5: vs Depaul
Last year: 15-7, 3-1 Big East, NCAA Round of 64
This is the lone opponent in the first homestand who could cause the Boilermakers difficulties. The Blue Demons were one of the best teams in the Big East last season, and they did just enough to beat St. Johns to make another NCAA Tournament appearance, their first one. However, that was a very senior-heavy team, with guys like Chris Casati, Boris Spanjaard, and Tamas Zador running out of eligibility after that season. This will definitely be a rebuilding year for Depaul, and while Vito Tonejc will remain as a solid leader at the top of the lineup, they will probably try and integrate a lot of freshmen just like Purdue will. According to all the recruiting data that I have read, Purdue’s recruits are significantly higher rated than Depaul’s, and that should lead to a Boilermaker victory.
February 5: vs Saint Louis
Last year: 10-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10, No NCAA Appearance
Don’t let the record fool you: the Billikens had a paper soft schedule last year. They played three matches against non-Division I opponents and zero against Power Six opponents. With regard to Purdue’s other nonconference opponents this year, they beat Bellarmine and IUPUI while losing to Eastern Illinois and Chicago State. Looking back at what I said about Purdue’s recent history against Chicago State, I fully expect that situation to arise again in this matchup.
February 12: ag Nicholls State
Last year: 4-12, 0-5 Southland, No NCAA Appearance
After staying home for a couple of weeks, Purdue heads out to Louisiana for a couple of matches during the second week of February. Their first matchup will be against a Nicholls State team looking to improve significantly on last year’s results. This was a very young team last year, so basically all of their main contributors return. However, this team was probably even worse than Purdue last year, so I’m not sure the extra seasoning will make much of a difference.
February 13: @Louisiana State
Last year: 12-14, 4-8 Southeastern, NCAA Round of 64
Purdue finishes their trip to Baton Rouge by facing the host Tigers. This team was one of the worse teams in the Southeastern Conference, but they were still a solid program that was well regarded enough based on a strong nonconference season and enough wins in conference to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Louisiana State will miss Rafael Wagner, who was their #2 singles player and a cog in their top doubles pair. However, many of their other key players are back, and they add Vlad Lobak, who has been successful during his time at Minnesota. Add in the fact that Louisiana State played much better at home than they did away from home last season, and I do not see Purdue winning this match.
February 20: @Louisville
Last year: 9-12, 3-8 Atlantic Coast, No NCAA Appearance
A trip down I-65 gets Purdue to their next matchup at Louisville, which would be the team’s third Power Five match of the season. The Cardinals were not a great team last season, hovering near the bottom of the conference. However, they did get a couple of decent wins, such as Auburn and Florida State. They lose Fabian Salle, who was their #2 singles player and one half of their top doubles team. However, they return effectively everyone else, and bring in Etienne Donnet from Oklahoma State to fit in somewhere in the bottom half of the lineup. Call this unbridled optimism, but I am believing that Purdue’s freshmen will have enough experience by now to take points in a match like this one, and Purdue claws out a close victory.
February 26: vs Eastern Illinois
Last year: 4-14, 1-4 Ohio Valley, No NCAA Appearance
Eastern Illinois has been bad at tennis for quite some time. They at least managed to pick up a few wins against Division I opponents this year but considering that they lost to a team transitioning to Division I from NAIA, Purdue shouldn’t have any trouble against these guys.
February 26: vs Bellarmine
Last year: 4-20, 0-6 Atlantic Sun, No NCAA Appearance
This is only Bellarmine’s second year as a Division I team, so there is still a growing phase happening. The team is still trying to improve their recruiting, and so they won’t be ready to take down a Big Ten opponent. I expect them to get better as the years go by, but at this point in time they do not have what it takes to beat Purdue.
March 16: @California
Last year: 2-1, 0-0 Pacific 12, No NCAA Appearance
Cal has been a relatively common opponent for the Boilermakers within the past decade, whether that was at the BNP Paribas Collegiate Challenge or as a Spring Break opponent, such as this year. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any good memories of these matchups, as Purdue was always on the losing end. Last year, Cal had some COVID-19 related issues come up that prevented them from playing out their season, but based on their results from the fall, I believe they have shaken off any rust by now. Based on past experience, I would not pick Purdue in a match like this one yet.
March 26: @Indiana
Last year: 8-11, 6-9 Big Ten, No NCAA Appearance
It was yet another season without an NCAA berth for Purdue’s most hated rival. Despite the fact that they have been more consistent than the Boilermakers over the past decade or so, that consistency has left them without a trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2012. I would guess that the drought will continue, as Indiana loses Bennett Crane and Andrew Redding and has done nothing to replace them. On paper, this team will almost certainly be in the bottom half of the conference, but Purdue hasn’t won in men’s tennis in Bloomington since 2003. Is this the team that can break that streak? It could happen, but given Purdue’s recent history overall, I am not confident enough to pick it.
April 1: vs Penn State
Last year: 7-10, 7-9 Big Ten, No NCAA Appearance
The Nittany Lions were an average team within the conference last year that generally beat the teams they were supposed to beat. However, they did have an ugly loss to Nebraska, the only Power Six team that may have been worse than Purdue last season, and over half of last year’s starting lineup does not return this year. Bora Sengul and Miko Eala are still good pieces for the top of the singles lineup, and they bring in a fascinating transfer in Ondrej Ctverak. Even though Penn State won both of last year’s matchups, they lose so much, and Purdue is gaining so much that I would say Purdue should come out on top this year.
April 3: vs Ohio State
Last year: 22-4, 15-1 Big Ten, NCAA Sweet Sixteen
The term "sharpie loss" is used to define a loss that is seemingly guaranteed. When you mark a game as a "sharpie loss", you are throwing out any possibility of the team winning. That is what I am doing for this match against the Buckeyes. Ohio State was a bit down last year, losing in the conference championship match and only making it to the Sweet Sixteen. However, given the history of success over the whole twenty-first century for Ohio State, I don’t expect this to continue for much longer. Ty Tucker has never lost to the Boilermakers while in Columbus, and I do not expect this to be the team that first beats him.
April 9: @Michigan
Last year: 15-5, 14-2 Big Ten, NCAA Round of 64
Last year was a bit of a watershed moment for Michigan. They are finally considered one of the top dogs of the conference again after last year’s sterling record, highlighted by their first win in men’s tennis over Ohio State since 2001. For this season, Coach Steinberg won Big Ten Coach of the Year. They lost the return bout in Columbus and twice to Illinois, but I would argue that they got utterly screwed in the NCAA Tournament selection process. Somehow, they had to face #15 Arizona at a neutral site in the first round, and they barely lost that matchup. Anyway, while they lose Mattias Siimar, one of their best doubles players, pretty much everyone else returns, including the fearsome one-two punch of Ondrej Styler and Andrew Fenty. Since a lot of the starters are due to run out of eligibility shortly, the elite recruiting class coming into Ann Arbor will probably be earning their spots sooner rather than later. With all of that said, Purdue does not have the firepower to take down Michigan, especially on the road.
April 10: @Michigan State
Last year: 6-14, 5-11 Big Ten, No NCAA Appearance
In recent years, Michigan State was the doormat of the conference, often losing to Western Michigan in the battle for the second-best team in the state and getting destroyed in many conference matchups. At one point, they had a mere one conference win in three seasons. However, Coach Orlando survived all of this and quietly recruited some good players from his area. Things were starting to look up a bit in 2020, but COVID-19 canceled the season before the most crucial matches could be played. An early win over Minnesota was an early sign, but when Michigan State swept the season series with Purdue, I realized that the paradigm had shifted. Furthermore, almost every major contributor to the 2021 rise is back for the 2022 season. Michigan State still is not great yet, but unless Purdue’s players improve considerably between now and this match, they should be good enough throughout the lineup to take four points.
April 16: vs Nebraska
Last year: 2-16, 1-15 Big Ten, No NCAA Appearance
In the first half of the season, Nebraska looked historically bad. They lost their first eleven matches of the season, and the Purdue match was the only one where they were within one point. They managed to snap the streak with an upset win over Iowa to finish with a win streak against the Hawkeyes, and they also upset Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to grant themselves some positive momentum. They lose Brandon Perez and Albert Sprlak-Puk from last year’s team, but every other major contributor returns. They also bring in a few freshmen looking for some early playing time. Nebraska is the only Big Ten team that Purdue has a current winning streak against, and the match is in West Lafayette, so I would favor the Boilermakers here.
April 17: vs Wisconsin
Last year: 5-13, 5-11 Big Ten, No NCAA Appearance
Overall, Wisconsin was below average in 2021. They were pretty good in doubles play, but they usually could not muster enough in singles play to take advantage of it. The Badgers did have a nice win against Penn State, but they also lost to Iowa when they were in the middle of a tailspin, and their exit from the Big Ten Tournament was pretty unceremonious. They return everybody from last year, and they bring in Sebastian Vile from Minnesota as a one-year transfer. This is a very senior-heavy team, and that experience will help them in this match. However, Purdue has a recent tendency to upset teams late in the conference season at home, so a win here is possible.
April 23: @Northwestern
Last year: 14-8, 11-5 Big Ten, NCAA Round of 32
It was a strong season for the Wildcats in 2021. While they only placed third in their bracket of the ITA Kickoff Weekend and lost two of their first three conference matches, they picked up steam from there. This was a very good doubles team last year, winning that point against Illinois, Michigan, and California-Los Angeles in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. However, they will have to reshuffle some things, as one part of their #1 pairing and their entire #2 pairing from last year are out of eligibility. Those three guys were also key singles players, so the reshuffling will extend there. The Wildcats do bring in a highly touted freshman class and bring in a graduate transfer from Florida, so that should help them somewhat. With this match in Evanston, I am not confident of Purdue’s chances.
April 24: @Illinois
Last year: 23-3, 15-1 Big Ten, NCAA Sweet Sixteen
Illinois was the beneficiary of a bit of an easy conference schedule, as they played both Michigan and Ohio State only once last season, with both matches at home. However, they were not afraid to match up against elite opponents, as their upset win over then-#1 Southern California shows. They were also the lone Big Ten team to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. However, this is another team that loses some key players from that squad: Aleks Kovacevic and some key depth pieces. It was depth that led them past Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament final, so that is a potential issue. However, they do bring in two very promising pieces: graduate transfer Olivier Stuart and freshman Gabrielius Guzauskas. Illinois might be down a bit this season, but they are not far enough down that I would pick Purdue to beat them in Champaign.
My Prediction: 10-13(2-9 Big Ten)
Best Case Scenario: 15-8(5-6 Big Ten), assuming Wichita State, Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin and either Southern Methodist or Tulsa are wins.
Worst Case Scenario: 7-16(0-11 Big Ten), assuming Louisville, Penn State, and Nebraska are losses.
The Shape of Success:
Let’s face it: Purdue needs to see some semblance of progress this season. A key veteran with experience in big matches returns, and there is a wealth of young talent entering the program. The schedule is challenging, but there should be a path to some improvement in record. An NCAA tournament appearance would be awesome, but I wouldn’t be mad if Purdue finishes a bit short of that goal. However, if this season ends up looking like last season, then serious questions need to be asked about who should be leading the Boilermaker men’s tennis program into 2023.