By CLIFF BRUNT
It’s time to give Purdue coach Matt Painter some credit.
A lot of people have been critical of him, especially during the team’s mid-season conference slump.
Honestly, he’s done a pretty good job during what most called a rebuilding year. I think the Boilermakers are a little ahead of where most people expected, and not quite as good as I expected.
I’ll start with a few criticisms. It took a while for the team to develop cohesion and the proper work ethic. It took some time for the newcomers to gain the right attitude. And the Boilermakers got crushed twice by Indiana. That’s never good. I don’t care how good the Hoosiers are, you have to get the best out of your guys against them. But I’ll give him credit for not giving up on this group and coaching players who didn’t initially mesh into a pretty good team.
Here are some reasons why Painter has rallied to retain his status as one of the best coaches in America.
1. He turned A.J. Hammons into a player.
When Hammons came here, he was a big guy with potential. By midseason, the 7-footer was schooling Cody Zeller. Then, when it appeared Hammons had fallen off and become a lost cause, Painter went to his trusted point guard — the bench — to help him out. Painter’s ally has molded many a player into a harder worker and better teammate. In another risky stroke of genius, he used Sandi Marcius to help make his point. After Hammons’ horrific game against Indiana in Bloomington, Painter benched him at the start of the Northwestern game. Marcius scored the first basket that day on a post-up. It was the beginning of the end for the team’s lackluster play. Purdue blew out Northwestern and the team got its swagger back. Since then, the Boilermakers have lost to a very tough Iowa team, won at Wisconsin, lost a heartbreaker at home against Michigan and handled a Minnesota team that probably will go to the NCAA tournament.
Because of Marcius’ emergence, Painter didn’t need to back down on the one thing he has always held dear. He won’t play you if you won’t play hard. No matter what the circumstances, Painter has not changed this. He doesn’t believe in letting guys play through laziness. Missed shots? Yes. Bad decisions? Yes. Laziness? No. Last year, a lot of Purdue fans didn’t like Kelsey Barlow’s attitude and decision-making, but Painter played him because when he was on the court, he was intense, even though it sometimes came across the wrong way.
Marcius had to contribute for it to work, and it did. His performance against Wisconsin, then carrying the team offensively against Michigan early when no one else was making shots is significant. That is how a big is supposed to settle his team down. It’s not just what Marcius did, it was how he did it.
To his credit, Hammons has been a good teammate. He isn’t the woe-is-me type. He has cheered for Marcius all along.
Hammons proved he got the message about effort with his 14-point, six-rebound, three block effort against Minnesota. If Purdue gets anywhere in the Big Ten tournament, Painter’s handling of Hammons will play a role because Purdue’s best players will have to be at their best in Chicago. Like it or not, Hammons is Purdue’s best player when he’s focused. Even better than Terone Johnson.
Let’s also be fair to Hammons. When we talk about freshmen, the standard often is the last great class at Purdue. Let’s take a closer look at what E’Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson did as freshmen in 2007-08 compared to Hammons’ performance this year:
PPG RPG BPG FG% Ast. Steals
Hammons 10.6 6.2 2.0 .500 0.6 0.4
Hummel 11.2 6.1 0.7 .484 2.5 1.3
Moore 12.9 3.9 0.4 .443 2.6 0.9
Johnson 5.4 3.1 1.0 .421 0.3 0.4
Hammons’ numbers are very solid compared to those guys. He’s had his growing pains, but I’ve got a feeling that the days of Purdue fans being frustrated with his effort are over. If that’s true, he’ll be every bit as good as any of the players mentioned above.
2. He reeled D.J. Byrd back in.
Being a senior can go two ways. Either you’re motivated because it’s your last chance to shine, or you’re bored because there’s nothing left to accomplish and you’ve done all you can.
Byrd almost went out on the wrong note, and that would have been a shame. But, with his performances against Wisconsin and Minnesota, he will be remembered the way he should be — as a game-changing sharpshooter.
In the three games Purdue has won since the second loss to Indiana, Byrd has averaged 17.7 points and made 12 of 22 3-pointers. That’s playing like you want to leave a legacy.
Byrd’s return to prominence also sets a standard for the way a veteran player should conduct himself. The young guys needed to see their senior captain step up. That’s a key element in building a winning program long-term.
3. He’s gotten Rapheal Davis to buy into the Painter Way.
Davis teased us with his 21-point performance against Notre Dame, but even back then, Painter hinted that we wouldn’t see much more of Davis until he improved defensively.
Since then, Painter has offered almost endless praise of Davis’ work ethic. It paid off on Monday, when Davis was named the Big Ten freshman of the week. He got the honor in large part because he scored 15 points against Michigan and 18 points against Minnesota. But Painter made sure way back in December that he understood if he didn’t play defense, he wouldn’t score because he wouldn’t play. To Davis’ credit, he was absolutely schooled by Christian Watford in the second Indiana game, and he came right back and worked hard.
Now, look at what you have: an athletic, hardworking freshman who plays defense. Oh, and he can average 16.5 points in a week against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams.
4. He’s allowed Ronnie Johnson to grow.
This is the most maddening part for Purdue fans. Ronnie Johnson makes mistakes. He turns the ball over, commits silly fouls, doesn’t have a jumper. There are some clear negatives.
But here’s the good. He’s a disruptive defensive player. He’s a playmaker on either end of the floor. He’s quicker than ____. Fill in the blank, the sentence is true. Doesn’t matter what name you put there. He really wants to win, he’s just not always sure how.
Most of all, he plays hard.
So Painter sticks with him.
Here’s my guess as to how the offseason goes. The Brothers Johnson work tirelessly on their jumpers. Ronnie’s becomes good enough for him to feel comfortable shooting it consistently. Then, he can rely less on his drive, which actually will make it more effective. Suddenly, he’s one of the best players in the Big Ten.
The honest truth is you can’t really bench a guy with Ronnie’s talent if he’s playing hard. That sends the wrong message. You play him, then fix his issues in the offseason.
I’ll give Painter a B for what he’s done this season. I can’t give him an A because any Purdue team that doesn’t show up against Indiana isn’t where it should be, and the stretch where things weren’t working lasted too long. That’s the six-game stretch that included losses by 37 points to Indiana, 15 points to Northwestern, 13 points to Michigan State, 20 points to Illinois and 28 points to Indiana.
For as bad as things seemed at one point, the Boilermakers are a few games from being on the bubble. One more conference win would have made them 9-9 in the league (flip the Michigan game and you’re there). If Purdue was to play Bucknell, Villanova, Xavier and Eastern Michigan again, I’m not so sure they’d lose them all. Give Purdue the Michigan game in West Lafayette and three of those non-conference games, including the Villanova overtime game, and all of a sudden, the Boilermakers are 19-12 and on the upswing with a resume that includes a win at Wisconsin, home wins against Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois and a neutral site win over Villanova. That’s how close Purdue is to being in a completely different conversation.
All these things point to a bright future. Even better, if Purdue can take it up another notch, it could be a very interesting right now, starting with Thursday’s game against Nebraska.