By CLIFF BRUNT
Purdue’s upcoming schedule might not seem all that appealing. After all, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota and Illinois aren’t on it.
That’s exactly why this next stretch of games is a very big deal for the Boilermakers.
Purdue defeated Penn State 60-42 on Sunday, and the Boilermakers now enter a four-game stretch during which they will be at worst a slight underdog in three of them. They desperately need victories to improve on their 8-8 record and build confidence before the schedule toughens.
Purdue’s measuring stick is no longer game-by-game improvement or baby steps. The freshmen have played enough now that it’s time to stop expecting them to play like freshmen. A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson and Rapheal Davis all started and scored double figures points against Penn State. It’s fair now to expect that kind of production every night. You can cut Davis a little slack because he’s just starting to get major minutes, but for the most part, the young excuse can now be thrown out the window. It’s time for the Boilermakers to start living up to their great potential. Winning winnable games would be a step towards showing that they are doing just that.
Purdue plays at Nebraska on Wednesday and hosts West Virginia on Saturday. Neither of those teams will get anyone excited in West Lafayette. Nebraska enters the week with a 9-8 record. West Virginia, though dangerous and improving, is 8-7 and its season could go either way. Purdue needs those 50/50-type games to have a successful season, meaning some kind of shot at postseason play.
Nebraska is one of two Big Ten teams that are winless in conference play. The Huskers have been tested early, though already having faced Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. One of the problems with this game is that Nebraska probably considers it winnable, too.
West Virginia is 8-7 and plays at Iowa State before coming to West Lafayette. The Boilermakers need a win against the Mountaineers to give them a winning non-conference record – Purdue has a 6-6 non-conference mark. West Virginia appears to be improving, having won four of its past six with its losses coming against Texas in overtime and by one point to nationally ranked Kansas State. The game provides an opportunity for the Boilermakers get a win that might be considered quality by the end of the season. Again, this is a game that the opponent will view as winnable, making it important for Purdue to come out focused.
Purdue likely won’t beat Michigan next Thursday, but then there’s a home game against Iowa on Sunday that the Boilermakers should have a good chance to win. Iowa is 12-5 overall but just 1-3 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are tough, though. They lost by four to Indiana and by three to Michigan State and are coming off a 70-50 win over Northwestern. They have won a lot of games this season, but they are a notch below the top teams talent-wise.
Purdue could realistically come out of that stretch winning 3 of 4 before hosting Indiana. If that happens, the Boilermakers would be 11-9 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten before the Hoosiers come to town.
Losses to Nebraska, West Virginia or Iowa will be a problem later on if the Boilermakers want to get to the postseason (I include the NIT in this because the youngsters could use the experience should Purdue end up hovering around .500). These are games that programs at the level I think Purdue is at should win.
Purdue remains a dangerous team because it has emerging talent and the Boilermakers play defense. Purdue held Penn State to 26 percent shooting and has allowed 40.4 percent shooting in Big Ten play, fourth in the league. Terone Johnson continues to play good perimeter defense, Ronnie Johnson is playing a better floor game and emerging as a defender and A.J. Hammons is proving to be a nightmare for opponents on both ends of the floor.
Hammons, at 7-foot and 280 pounds, is a skilled, strong player who is improving on a weekly basis. He makes Purdue one of the best defensive teams in the conference. Coach Matt Painter said Hammons still hasn’t quite figured out when to jump and when to just be big. He also hasn’t quite figured out how to stop reaching or how to put his arms straight up. But even without those fundamental skills, which come with time and coaching, Hammons already has become an impact player in the conference. In league play, he averages 11.8 points per game and is shooting 55 percent from the field, is seventh in the conference with 8.0 rebounds per game and leads the Big Ten with 2.8 blocks per game. He might be the best NBA prospect Purdue has had during the Painter Era. He just needs to accept the coaching and reap the rewards, just like JaJuan Johnson did.
One other thing will probably have to happen for Purdue to start winning these games. Davis will have to play more. Davis got his second start of the year against Penn State and was productive, yet you could tell he needs more experience to figure out when to attack and when to back off. Purdue needs another player who can take pressure off D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Though Jacob Lawson is athletic, he is not a proven offensive commodity. Davis opens the offense up more, and with Hammons inside, the Boilermakers don’t necessarily need to be big at power forward. Plus, Davis is 6-foot-5 and has the length to help on the boards. We know the Boilermakers can defend. Now, they need to score points. Davis does that very well.
Overall, things look promising for the Boilermakers. The schedule works out perfectly for them as they try to get their footing. But again, it’s not just about growth, it’s about winning, and if they somehow grow within that context, great.
Time to grow up, fellas.
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