Brunt: Purdue has no more margin for error in non-conference play

By CLIFF BRUNT
ISL Editor

What’s up with Purdue?

Why are the Boilermakers 4-6? Why are they losing these close games? Do they have any chance to do anything this season?

These are questions I have been asked in the past week by fans disappointed in the 81-68 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday.

Ronnie Johnson’s development could make or break Purdue’s season.

I know, I told you this wouldn’t be a down year. I still believe that. At this point, the Boilermakers are young, extremely talented, growing and not quite there yet. They are about where I expected them to be development-wise, with a slightly worse record.

Things aren’t as bad as they look, but the Boilermakers have no remaining margin for error. They cannot lose tonight at home against Ball State — it would be too bad a loss. Purdue probably can’t afford any more non-conference losses, given the talent level in the Big Ten. As you know, the NCAA selection committee doesn’t go for .500 teams. That means the Boilermakers are faced with winning the rest of their non-conference games and going at least a few games above .500 in league play just to be in consideration for an NCAA bid. That is going to be very tough, but with such a high talent level, it’s not an impossible task.

So, what has gone wrong?

Coach Matt Painter wanted Ronnie Johnson to be his trusted floor general, but the freshman point guard hasn’t quite figured out the overall team concept, so he has been a risk at crunch time. The team hasn’t found a consistent scorer other than Terone Johnson, A.J. Hammons hasn’t fully embraced the fact that he can dominate if he plays big instead of playing finesse ball and the team hasn’t figured out how to close games.

As a result, the Boilermakers are winning games they are supposed to win, losing games they are supposed to lose and losing games that are questionable because they don’t make plays at key times and make mistakes at the wrong times.

Let’s look further into the main issues.

The Boilermakers need to develop another scorer.

D.J. Byrd is struggling in part because he’s not a lead scorer, but he’s being forced to play like one at times because the freshmen haven’t fully developed. Byrd is at his best when defenders have to leave him to focus on other players. Hammons has the potential to draw double teams, but he’s not quite there yet. Ronnie Johnson could be that guy as well, but he doesn’t yet shoot well enough from the outside.

Rapheal Davis might be the answer. He is a pure scorer who dropped in 21 points in the second half against Notre Dame on Saturday. He was the team’s leading scorer on the Italy trip, and Painter always has said he had faith in the young man’s ability to score.

This situation with Davis offers a glimpse into how Painter thinks. It’s obvious that Davis can score. He’s shooting 56 percent from the field, but there are other telling stats that reveal why he hasn’t played more. He has 14 turnovers to eight assists and just one steal.

Painter has always made it clear that if you don’t defend, you don’t play. Davis hasn’t played more than 18 minutes in a game yet. If you listened to Painter’s postgame comments after the Notre Dame game, more becomes clear.

He’s always been known as a scorer, but he’s improved in other areas, Painter said. He was a pleasant surprise for us, but he needs more time, he needs more minutes. It’s hard with the makeup of our team for that to happen, but if he keeps playing well and playing consistent, he is going to put himself in position to be out there a lot.

Translation: Davis needs to be as committed to defense and passing as he is to scoring. Painter will not play someone who can’t or won’t defend at a high level unless he absolutely has to. People didn’t like Kelsey Barlow, but Barlow played because he played defense. The concept of defense being as important as offense is the toughest thing for a freshman to get. Though Painter prefers to sit players until they consistently play his brand of defense, it’s getting close to a point where the talent has to play through it. I think we’ll see a lot of Davis tonight. If we do, Byrd could break out by playing off of him.

Every player’s emergence has a domino effect. The more Davis plays, the less we’ll probably see Anthony Johnson. A.J. is a better defender and passer than Davis at this point, but he’s struggling with his shot, and Purdue needs scoring. A.J. is shooting 38 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers put you at risk for a reduction in minutes.

Hammons needs to realize who he is.

He’s a beast, plain and simple. He’s 7-foot tall and weighs 280 pounds.

Hammons goes for a few too many layups, jumpers and fadeaways for a guy his size. He needs to lower his base, establish position and attack with his shot or a smart pass. More often, he needs to go in strong and score. Use all that size and lean on somebody. Dunk on people. Punish people. Painter doesn’t need a 7-foot shooting guard, he needs a destroyer. If Hammons figures out that he’s an old-school throwback center, the possibilities for Purdue are limitless.

Ronnie Johnson needs to continue to progress.

Painter took him out of the starting lineup after a poor performance late in the overtime loss to Villanova. He put R.J. back in as a starter against Notre Dame and he looked like he was starting to come around. He scored a season-high 15 points on 6-for-14 shooting. His shot selection improved. He still had three turnovers, but overall, he looked as though he was starting to play the Painter Way. He’s an exceptional talent who now is starting to figure out what playing team ball at the college level is about.

The team simply needs to keep playing.

Experience, the best teacher, only comes with time. These next two games against Ball State and William and Mary will be key as the Boilermakers make steps toward the Jan. 2 game against Illinois. The Ball State game falls under the Games Purdue should win category. The Cardinals are 5-4 and have won three straight, but the teams they are beating aren’t in Purdue’s class talent-wise. William and Mary is 6-3 and is a decent team. This falls under the questionable category. The Tribe gave Richmond a game before falling in overtime and battled Georgia Tech before losing. It’s a perfect setup for the conference season because the Boilermakers will not win unless they play well.

So, what does all this mean?

Purdue is extremely close to figuring things out. All the things that need to happen are in process. It needs to come together soon, though, if the Boilermakers want to go anywhere this season. If it does come together, the Boilermakers will be just fine. Remember, they host West Virginia in January. That’s a winnable non- conference game against a solid team. A 7-6 non-conference finish is reasonable. With the conference as strong as it is, the Boilermakers could grow up very quickly. For a point of reference, the Purdue team with JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin as freshmen went 9-4 in non-conference play, then went 15-3 in the Big Ten. This team won’t post that kind of league record, but it is worth pointing out how quickly a young, talented team can grow up.

Even if the Boilermakers don’t have a pretty record, they could be very dangerous by March. An NIT bid wouldn’t be horrible either, because this team needs as many games as possible. I think this is an NCAA tournament team making NIT-level mistakes. Let’s see if the switch comes on in time to make this another good year.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.

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