By CLIFF BRUNT
After Purdue beat Penn State earlier this season, a reporter asked A.J. Hammons and Ronnie Johnson if they think about the future. After all, the freshmen dominated in a 60-42 win, and it looked like the Boilermakers and their young talent might be turning the corner.
Hammons answered first.
“I try not to,” Hammons said. “We’ve got to finish this season off and see how we do this season. We’ve got to play our games we’ve got. I’m not really worried about next season until it comes.”
Johnson gave a completely different answer, not only saying that the freshmen discuss the future, but that by omission, Hammons is not a part of the greater discussion.
“I think so,” Johnson said. “Me, Ray (Rapheal) Davis, Jay (Simpson), we always talk about the future. Just coming in, we say we’ve got to stick the course and once these next few years come, it’ll be our time. We’ve got to do our thing.”
The rematch with Penn State is tonight, and since that promising January day, the players have grown as far apart on the court as the dramatically different answers to that simple question. I find myself asking questions I’ve rarely considered while watching a Matt Painter-coached team.
Are these guys motivated?
Can he get them to play as a team?
Are these guys getting any better?
There have been times over the years when Purdue (11-11, 4-5 Big Ten) has been sluggish or when one or more players might not have been with the program. But there’s never been enough of an issue to question whether there is a deeper problem.
Purdue seemed to be getting it together, winning 4 of 5 heading into the Indiana game. Purdue’s loss to the Hoosiers was bad because the Boilermakers made mistakes early and didn’t give themselves a chance to compete. Indiana kicked into a higher gear that night, and it was over quickly.
Purdue’s next performance was actually more troubling and less expected. The Boilermakers fell behind against a middle-of-the-road Northwestern team before losing 75-60 in Evanston, Ill. The Wildcats are always tough, but at worst, that should have been a close loss.
Now, there’s the possibility of a loss against the Nittany Lions (8-13, 0-9). Five of Penn State’s nine losses in conference play have come by double digits. Winning this game shouldn’t even be an issue for Purdue, based on talent. If Penn State wins, Purdue isn’t even an NIT-worthy team. The Boilermakers have to win this one just to avoid completely falling apart.
Yes, sometimes, young teams have these kinds of issues. They make leaps then fall back. The worst part of this fall is, after showing what they can do when playing as a team, the Boilermakers have regressed the past two games and now look like they did in December.
If Painter gets credit for Purdue’s growth, he gets blamed for its regression, too. Part of recruiting is bringing in coachable players. These Boilers haven’t looked the part lately. It’s time for the players to put their listening ears back on.
Here are the biggest areas of concern after the loss at Northwestern:
Northwestern shot 53 percent from the field.
Purdue has generally defended well this season, so this development was a bit of a surprise. Purdue again struggled with perimeter defense, surrendering 11 3-pointers. Lack of communication and hustle often are the biggest problems when opponents shoot well from the outside.
Purdue shot 33 percent from the field.
A.J. Hammons made 9 of 19 shots, meaning his teammates made just 14 of 50.
Ronnie, Terone and Anthony combined to shoot 8-for-33. This is not the first time the Johnsons have struggled. They need to take advantage of the extra attention Hammons will draw. If Hammons is making nearly 50 percent of his shots and has three assists, there should be quality shots for the other guys, and they have to knock them down.
Davis has scored two points in 70 minutes the last three games. He’s not even shooting the ball. Not sure what’s going on here, but he’s in the lineup for offense and little is happening. The way he responds with the ball in his hands tonight bears watching.
Because the Boilermakers can win this game without playing their best, how they play will be more important than the score, though the score will matter. Will Purdue guard the perimeter better? Will the ballhandlers make the right decisions? Will the Boilermakers continue to feed the post, and if so, will they take advantage once Hammons is established?
I know there’s time left this season, but as I have said, the time to be figuring it out is over. The Boilermakers need to win and play well tonight or the season might be unsalvageable.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl