By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The score wasn’t nearly the most important part of Purdue’s win over Northwestern on Sunday night.
Yes, the Boilermakers throttled the Wildcats 74-43, avenging a 75-60 loss on Feb. 2. But the most important element, by far, was the leadership that emerged.
Terone Johnson, by word and deed, led the way.
Johnson scored 12 of his 22 points in the first half to set the tone and help the Boilermakers take a 40-25 lead at the break. He also played excellent defense on Reggie Hearn, who ripped the Boilermakers for 26 points in the first meeting but was held to eight this time.
After the game, he spoke with confidence and wisdom, like someone who understood what had been wrong and what needed to be done.
“I thought once the shot clock got down to around 13 or 14, earlier in the season, guys were just putting up bad shots,” he said. “We actually worked the ball around (on Sunday). Sometimes, it got down to five, and there goes a guy open for a three. After a drive, people are kicking it out. Those rhythm shots are good for us.”
The word “actually” is by far the most important part of the quote. It implies that he was tired of the situation and was glad that the message had finally gotten through to his teammates. It implied that he was frustrated with not getting good shots. It implies that he knew the team was being held back by selfishness and poor ball movement.
Actually, he’s right.
But the most important thing about all of it is he — OK, someone — played Boilermaker basketball. For all Matt Painter’s lineup changes, nothing can get the message across better than someone demonstrating how it’s supposed to be done in front of your face.
Last week, on the Query and Schultz Show on WNDE 1260, I was asked if Purdue should call it a year, bench the starters and see what kind of depth it has.
I said no. I said Purdue needs to see who will step up and lead. Who is ready to hold onto his position when these studs come in next year? Who is ready to teach the next wave of talent what it’s all about?
With his performance against Northwestern, Johnson stepped up. He said he didn’t want to eight days to play after the Boilermakers were rolled by Indiana, but, in another example of emerging wisdom, he recognized that the time to prepare for the Wildcats was exactly what the team needed.
“I think it’s always tough to wait that long, especially after coming off a loss the way we lost at IU,” Johnson said. “You feel like you want to play the next day to get that loss off your mind. But I thought it was a definite advantage against their (Northwestern’s) system. The way they do things, you have to play totally different. It definitely helped us out.”
Meanwhile, as Johnson was delivering his message, so too, was Painter.
One of the most talented young bigs in the country, A.J. Hammons, came off the bench and played just 12 minutes against Northwestern. Hammons had gone for 19 points and 13 rebounds in the previous meeting, but this time, he had six points and three rebounds. It will be important to see how he responds to this. Hammons is a young player, and there is a fine line between pushing a young player and damaging his confidence. The Boilermakers play at Iowa on Wednesday. How Hammons responds will say a lot about him as a player, and as a person at this stage of his life.
It should also be noted that the man who started in Hammons’ place, Sandi Marcius, made a statement of his own. On Purdue’s first offensive possiession, Marcius got the ball down low and scored as though it was a regular occurrence. Marcius doesn’t score much — he’s been at Purdue for three years and has scored a total of 110 points. So the basket at the start of the game was more symbolic than anything. Marcius, like Johnson, was around for the good old days. He has put in his time. Though he is not as talented as Hammons, he gets the most of his talent. He had four points and three rebounds in 16 minutes on Sunday, about as much as can be expected. But every one of those 16 minutes cut into Hammons’ time.
Painter had a simple reason for benching Hammons, the Big Ten’s leading shot blocker in conference play: “I thought the last couple games, he didn’t play as hard as Sandi did.”
Painter then went further when describing his issues with Hammons: “He’s trying to play hard on Wednesday and Saturday. You’ve got to play hard every single day.”
Painter rarely rips a player in such a pointed manner. Hammons’ lack of effort has clearly gotten under his skin. Hammons has to understand that Painter was much more like Marcius than Hammons as a player at Purdue. Painter had to give his all to get onto the court, so Hammons’ lack of effort is a slap in the face, not only for the team right now, but for the player Painter was in his day. Hammons will play in the NBA someday, but he won’t play for Purdue until he plays the right way.
Johnson and Marcius are important players in the Purdue program because they are coming back next year. The upcoming freshman class is talented, and it needs to have clear leadership in place to emerge as the foundation is laid for a revival. I’ve watched Basil Smotherman play. Somebody’s starting job will be in jeopardy the minute he steps on campus. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Kendall Stephens and Bryson Scott. They need to know how to get it done. Johnson and Marcius, at least for a night, showed they might be ready to groom the next wave of talent.
We’ll see if they grow more comfortably into those roles. But for the first time in a while, it looked like the Purdue ship had captains.