By CLIFF BRUNT
I’m not going to say I told you so. It’s just a bit too soon.
I caught a lot of grief for maintaining my belief that Purdue was a talented team that had yet to turn the corner but was almost there. Yet, the Boilermakers were kind enough to make me look brilliant in their 68-61 win over No. 11 Illinois that should have sounded alarms and sirens all over the Big Ten.
It wasn’t a perfect effort, but the things that always have made Purdue tough — gritty defense, tempo control and clutch plays — were on full display Wednesday.
I said in this article a few weeks back that Purdue wasn’t that far away. I said before the season that Matt Painter was Purdue’s best recruit since Glenn Robinson and that the Boilermakers wouldn’t have a down year.
It doesn’t change everything — Purdue is just 7-6 — but now a breakout doesn’t seem like a stretch. Teams that are rebuilding don’t do this kind of stuff in Big Ten openers, they do them in February after an entire season of figuring things out.
This team could be good.
Terone Johnson took on the role of Hummel or JaJuan or E’Twaun with a career-high 25. Once Johnson got going, it opened things up for D.J. Byrd, who got hot, then played like a senior down the stretch. His offensive rebound and timeout as he was heading out of bounds will be replayed for a long time if Purdue does anything this season. His 3-point play that immediately followed was the dagger.
Purdue finally used its enormous size on the front line to bully somebody. The Boilermakers outrebounded Illinois 45-35 and outscored the Fighting Illini 36-18 in the paint. It was clear that Purdue was a better inside team, but that the Boilermakers patiently and effectively used that advantage shows that the team has taken a major step in maturity.
Just as important, Ronnie Johnson didn’t lose it for the Boillermakers. The uber-talented, sometimes overanxious freshman was more of a floor general than I’ve yet seen him be. Three assists and one turnover in 29 minutes? Purdue can win with those numbers.
A.J. Hammons dominated the game, even by scoring just two points. He had seven rebounds and three blocks in 22 minutes. Yes, he got into foul trouble, but those numbers show he was tuned in, even when he didn’t have the ball. That’s a big deal for a freshman. Hammons did defensively as a post what Chris Kramer used to do as a perimeter defender — he completely eliminated an option for Illinois. He owned the paint, as a 7-foot, 280-pound beast is supposed to.
Rapheal Davis, who played nine minutes, entered the game early. He finished with two points, but a good sign was his two assists and three field-goal attempts. The shoot-first freshman is starting to fit in.
For the first time this season, it looked like a Matt Painter-coached team was on the floor. All of a sudden, this team of youngsters who were supposedly going to get killed this Big Ten season leads the Big Ten and opened conference play with a win over the 11th-ranked team in the nation. And they did it the Painter Way. That means Painter is in control. This is a very good thing.
I’m not saying Purdue is going to win the Big Ten or anything. But Purdue is going to make life absolutely miserable for the powers who chalked up their games against the Boilermakers up as wins before the season began. Make no mistake, this team has talent. It has found a scorer for the other guys to play off of, the bench is deep and Mackey Arena is no picnic of a place to play. Watch out.