By CLIFF BRUNT
I said this wouldn’t be a down year for Purdue.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t a down year in a sense. Purdue wasn’t horrible, at least not for the entire season. Things started out badly and were downright awful during the middle of the conference slate, but towards the end of the season, the Boilermakers started to look familiar. There was the big win at Wisconsin, a game that offers a look into the future. There a quite a bit of growth along the way, but much of it came after traditional goals were out of reach.
I knew the Big Ten was going to be tough, and it was actually better than I expected. But that’s not why it was a down year.
Where I went wrong was my expectation of the team’s mental makeup. Talent alone does not make a team, and neither does a great coach. I still say Matt Painter is Purdue’s best recruit since Glenn Robinson, but what I learned through this season is that a coach, no matter how good his intentions, cannot force players to take on his personality.
A.J. Hammons, though talented, lacks a consistent killer instinct. He had one of the best freshman seasons ever at Purdue, yet it could have been so much better. Rapheal Davis is a hard worker, but he was uncomfortable at times in his role, not knowing whether to be aggressive or defer. Ronnie Johnson, though talented, lacked maturity at times and progressed slowly. I thought the Boilermakers would challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid. They had the talent to be on that level but failed to become a cohesive, consistent unit. This freshman class was good, but not as mature as the last great freshman class at Purdue that featured Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Scott Martin.
That 2008 team also featured a sophomore leader named Chris Kramer who set the tone for the entire program. Guys like Kramer help youngsters progress quickly. Purdue developed a similar level of leadership late this season, but the strides Terone Johnson and Sandi Marcius made in that area came after it was too late for the team to realistically seek its usual goals.
This season offers a further indication of how special Robbie, E’Twaun and even JaJuan and Scott Martin were as freshmen. They took on key roles with confidence and were poised, even as they grew. I would argue that the difference in pure talent between Robbie/E’Twaun and A.J./Ronnie is minimal. But Robbie and E’Twaun were 18 going on 35. A.J. and Ronnie are normal freshmen.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with A.J. and Ronnie. Let’s be clear — everybody in America would love to have those two guys coming back — including Indiana. The emphasis isn’t so much that A.J. and Ronnie weren’t mature. They both matured significantly during the season. It’s that the standard they’re measured against is sky high.
A.J. has the ability to be special, as evidenced by the first game against Indiana. He also has the ability to disappear. The team will have to figure out how to play off of him next year and run its motion offense around him. He, in turn, will need to improve his mobility. He will probably be the focal point next year, even though Terone Johnson will be the leader. If Hammons takes ownership of his future and develops an edge, we’ll be saying goodbye at this time next year. If he doesn’t get it together, he’ll cost himself millions of dollars. Somehow, I think he’ll be fine.
Johnson’s 27-point effort against Santa Clara is the kind of game that should leave fans feeling good about the state of the program.
Davis is only going to get stronger and better. He was named Big Ten freshman of the week for his performance the final week of the regular season and now has an offseason to focus on rounding out his game.
But back to the original point — yes, it was a down year. The loss to Nebraska clinched that. I’m from Nebraska and was genuinely disappointed that the Cornhuskers won because I thought Purdue was better than that. But the future is extremely bright. With a strong incoming class, there are no limits to how good Purdue can be next year.
Purdue fans, I’ll let you all move on now.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.