By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It’s supposed to be a down year for Purdue.
I chuckle when I hear that. I was here in 2006. I know what a “down year” is.
True, the Boilermakers no longer have the players who made them nationally known in recent years. Robbie Hummel went out in a blaze of 26-point glory during Purdue’s NCAA tournament loss to Kansas. E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson are long gone. Lewis Jackson is in Lithuania. Ryne Smith is now an assistant coach.
So now, the Boilers are left with a bunch of role players and unproven young guys. What hope is there for Purdue basketball amid all the hype about that school down South?
A lot. Purdue’s best recruit since Glenn Robinson still remains.
Let me be clear. Purdue basketball is about coach Painter and his system of ideas and values. It’s about much more than any single player, even Hummel. That’s why, with all the hype about Indiana and everyone else, Purdue still could have an exceptional season.
There are two things Painter does extremely well that give the Boilermakers a chance to surprise this year: he recruits players who fit his system well and he brings the most out of them. Those things seem simple, but they are much more easily said than done. He also recruits enough depth so if he isn’t getting the most out of you, he simply replaces you with one of the endless line of capable players on the roster.
I almost forgot. There’s a third. If you get out of line too many times, as Kelsey Barlow did, you can hit the door. Barlow was the most athletically gifted player on last year’s team, and would have been the most experienced returnee this year. Painter dismissed him and the team got better. That sends a message. Trust me, Barlow is much more important to this year’s team than you might realize. With a young team in place, the ghost of Kelsey Barlow is an extremely important part of the Purdue program right now. He’d be a senior right now, and he, not Terone Johnson, would be on all the magazine covers right now if he was still around. You can bet all those wide-eyed freshmen know exactly who Barlow was and don’t want to be next.
Now, let me remind you what a down year really is.
I moved from St. Louis to Indianapolis to cover the Boilermakers for the AP in 2005. Purdue was coming off a 7-21 season. Gene Keady had just handed the reins to Painter. The team’s best players, Carl Landry and David Teague, were injured and redshirted, and Purdue finished 9-19.
Now, let’s talk about what Painter has done since.
Landry and Teague returned the next year and the Boilermakers reached the NCAA tournament, losing to eventual national champion Florida in the second round.
In 2008, Purdue made the NCAA tournament with two freshman starters, Moore and Hummel, and a third, Johnson, starting part time.
The Boilermakers won the Big Ten tournament in 2009 and reached the Sweet 16 with Moore, Hummel and Johnson as sophomore starters. They were special players, but the fact remains – he won with young guys.
When Hummel went down with a torn ACL late in the 2009-2010 season, folks thought the Boilermakers would fold. Instead, they rallied and made it to the Sweet 16. They lost to Duke, which won the national championship.
The next year, with everyone expecting Purdue to make a run at the Final Four, Hummel tore his ACL again before the season started and folks didn’t know what to expect. Purdue eventually lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the NCAA tournament, a loss much easier to take once VCU reached the Final Four.
Last year, Hummel was back, but he didn’t have much experienced firepower with him. Still, the Boilermakers pushed Kansas to the limit before falling in the round of 32. Kansas went on to the national final.
So, as you can see, even under difficult circumstances, Purdue has won year after year. Even though the Big Ten is loaded this year, West Lafayette will not be a favorite destination for Big Ten travelers. Painter will make sure of it.
So, what does Purdue have?
Size. Donnie Hale, a redshirt freshman, was second on the team in scoring and rebounds on the Italy trip this summer. Painter said A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot, 280-pounder, is potentially a great center. Jay Simpson, a 6-9, 268-pound freshman who Painter calls the most talented post on the team, didn’t play in Italy.
Bigs Jacob Lawson, Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll will have to pick up their production given the size Painter has brought in. Lawson has the highest ceiling among the three.
Depth and balance. Terone Johnson, a junior guard, is the top returning scorer. He has embraced the role of top perimeter defender as well. D.J. Byrd, a senior, is the top returning 3-point shooter.
Freshman guard Rapheal Davis was the leading scorer on the trip to Italy this summer. Freshman Ronnie Johnson, Terone’s little brother, got the most minutes overseas. Dru Anthrop was a solid contributor.
Anthony Johnson showed flashes of brilliance as a shooting guard last year and will play some point this year.
Nine Boilermakers averaged at least seven points per game in Italy. Three – Byrd, Davis and Hale – averaged 10 points or more.
Good coaching. As long as Matt Painter is around, the Boilermakers won’t have any down years. Maybe not quite as successful as you’re used to, but not down. Down is single-digit wins with your two best players on the bench wearing suits.
Painter was the Big Ten coach of the Year in 2008, 2010 and 2011 for a reason, and his best coaching job might have been last year’s. Painter said on Media Day he wants his program to be like Wisconsin’s – year after year, the Badgers would lose top players and remain in the mix. Purdue might already be there.
There is talent. How far it goes depends on Painter’s ability to mold players and get them to adapt to his system and his defensive expectations. More than anything, this season will be about Painter’s ability to coach. If that’s the case, I like Purdue’s chances much more often than not.