Last season was the first year Matt Painter missed the NCAA Tournament at Purdue since his inaugural season in West Lafayette. After finally seeing the last of the Baby Boilers depart, Purdue was left with an extremely thin roster. While Painter finally put together a strong recruiting class in 2012, the combination of relying on an extremely inexperienced core of freshman and years of weak recruiting classes led to a dysfunctional Boilermaker team. Gone were the years of stout defense and turnover free basketball, replaced with sloppy passing, defensive breakdowns and extremely poor shooting from the field. However, something started to click towards the end of the season as the Boilermakers showed signs of life, routing Wisconsin (in Madison) and Minnesota while giving the national runner-up everything they could handle.
After what was one of the most disappointing seasons in West Lafayette in quite some time, the fan base seems recharged and ready for basketball once again. While Purdue struggled throughout much of last season, the team is looking like it's ready to make the jump back to the NCAA Tournament and field a much more competitive and balanced team. Of course there were some beliefs that last year's team was on pace for the same result, so that thought will likely have to be taken with a grain of salt until the season gets underway. Either way, Purdue should be much improved from last year. The question now is if they'll be able to correct some of their bigger issues, with the answer likely determining their NCAA Tournament fate.
It feels almost dirty to say Purdue is an experienced team. The team's roster will once again skew young, as it features five freshman and five sophomores, with the only junior on the roster being walk-on Neal Beshears. Out of the team's four seniors, two of them are transfers and another is likely in contention for maybe 10 minutes a night in conference play.
Even though the team on paper is young, it is definitely a much more experienced unit. Throughout most of last season Painter was forced to start three true freshmen. The teams youth was apparent as mistakes increased dramatically and they constantly dug themselves into holes that they struggled to overcome. Now the team will have four starters with a full season of starting experience (senior Terone Johnson wasn't a full-time starter until last year). The new guy in the starting rotation, at least early on, will be Jay Simpson, a redshirt freshman that at least had the benefit of playing about a third of the season.
Ronnie Johnson: It's only fitting that Ronnie is the younger brother of Terone Johnson, as both basically bring the same game to the table (with Ronnie being the better passer). Last season Ronnie committed far too many turnovers and the hope here is that his turnovers were the product of his inexperience and youth. Now in his second full season as a starter Ronnie will have to make the switch and take better control of the ball or he could fall into Painter's doghouse. Unlike last season where Painter had nowhere else to turn (besides A.J. Johnson who basically had all of the same problems and none of the upside), Painter now brings in freshman Bryson Scott and senior transfer Sterling Carter, both potential options to run the point if Ronnie can't make improvements. One thing that Ronnie has that will keep him in front, though, is the sophomore's ability to attack the rim and get points down low. Of course Ronnie's inside game is vital as he's an even worse outside shooter than his older brother. The idea of a point guard shooting 16.7% from three and 59.6% from the line is almost unthinkable and will be a major point of emphasis for Johnson on the season. If Ronnie can limit turnovers and improve his shooting, he should see a major improvement in 2013-14. If Ronnie can't make the jump, it could help pave the way for Bryson Scott into the starting rotation.
Terone Johnson: Terone is the team's leader, most experienced starter and number one scoring option. Or in other words, he's extremely important to the success of the Boilermakers. While Terone has received quite a bit of praise, his game is far from perfect and he needs to continue improving his shooting if the Boilermakers want to make it back to the tournament in March. Terone is essentially a volume shooter who will score a high percentage of the team's points on most nights. The problem is Terone has yet to show an effective outside jumper at West Lafayette and if you're leading the team in shots you might want to shoot better than 40.2%. He did manage to start hitting from outside later on in the season and improved his free throw shooting considerably (up to 62.3%), but Terone will either need to improve from outside or cut back on the number of shots he takes. Terone's most dangerous weapon might be his ability to get to the rim, but if he wants to properly utilize it he'll need to improve on his free throw shooting. For better or worse Terone will likely lead the Boilermakers in scoring, but if his shooting stays at the same level it might be beneficial for Painter to start looking elsewhere for primary scorers.
Rapheal Davis: Davis started 17 games last season and with the graduation of D.J. Byrd, he'll get the first crack at the three spot. Davis is a solid defender and can pick up rebounds for the Boilermakers, but his offensive game has been stuck in neutral. Davis has definitely shown signs of life on offense (look no further than the Notre Dame game), but time and time again he seems to stay in the background and let his teammates run the offense. Last season Purdue was very, very bad from outside and will need to establish a better perimeter attack. If Davis keeps humming along in neutral, Painter could turn to someone else like Kendall Stephens. The experience and defensive intangibles will give Davis the edge out of the gate, but if the team can't improve the offense he could be a casualty as Painter looks to the bench to improve shooting. Even if Davis stops starting at some point in the season, I'd still expect the sophomore to eat up considerable minutes in the rotation. Painter loves defense and guys that don't make mistakes, something that sums up Davis extremely well.
Jay Simpson: There's been some speculation over what will happen with Simpson this season at Purdue. The freshman last season came into the season out of shape and had a nagging foot injury that would eventually lead to him being sidelined. Painter believes Simpson may be the team's most talented player, but it still looks like he's a bit away from reaching that potential. Simpson is now healthy and in better shape, but he's still been hesitant and makes too many poor decisions. And for all the improvements he's made to his athleticism, he's still considerably slower than the rest of the roster. However, at 6'10 he gives Painter the option of going big with Simpson and Hammons in the frontcourt. Simpson's size, familiarity with the system and slight experience at Purdue will give him the edge over Peck and Smotherman to start the season, but he's going to need to produce to keep this spot. If Simpson can capitalize on his potential, he'll be solidified at the four. If he's slow down low and keeps settling for jumpers, he'll quickly fade back to the bench.
A.J. Hammons: This is the year both Purdue and Purdue fans are hoping Hammons pieces it all together. There's no questioning his talent, his physical ability or his potential. The only question is if Hammons cares enough to get it going, with the jury still in deliberation. At seven feet Hammons will have a size advantage down low on almost everyone and he's the rare true center playing at the collegiate level. Besides being able to eat up rebounds and make a plethora of inside moves, Hammons has also shown signs of a decent mid-range jumper that could be beneficial. Hammons also has slimmed down around 25 pounds and has improved his conditioning, potentially allowing him to make some strides in his defensive efforts. Hammons has the skill to be the Big 10 player of the year (or at least All-Conference). However, if he comes out again looking bored and disinterested it might be more of the same for the seven footer. With a potential NBA career looming for Hammons, he's going to have it to put in the work sooner than later in West Lafayette, with Purdue fans hoping the transition starts now.
A list of biggest strengths for Purdue would likely include their experience, size, versatility and defense. The Boilermakers struggled last season with youth and still won't have many returning juniors or seniors, but they do bring back four guys that started last season and a fifth guy who might have started last season (Simpson) if not for injuries. Painter also went out and added to senior transfers who have spent some time playing elsewhere before joining the Boilermakers. Painter will be looking to capitalize on the team's experience, especially in correcting the mental mistakes last year's team commonly committed.
Another strength will be the Boilermakers size and versatility. It's been awhile since Purdue has been able to play big but with the return of Simpson, Purdue could run a lineup anchored by a seven footer and another guy that measures in just under seven feet. At the same time Purdue has a duo of smaller fours in Basil Smotherman and Errick Peck, allowing the team to field a smaller, quicker line-up. With both Stephens and Davis capable of playing the wing and a backlog of guards, Purdue could even put out a guard heavy lineup if need be. The Boilermakers seemed to be forced into their rotations the last two seasons but now Painter has a full deck that will allow him to experiment and focus on what works best against opponents, allowing a wide variety of looks.
And of course we can't forget about defense. One of Painter's biggest points of emphasis, the defense should once again be a key for the team. Last season there was a decrease in the team's defense, but a lot of that stemmed from turnovers and poor shoots leading to easy points in transition. As long as the team cuts down on turnovers and makes better decisions when shooting the ball the defense should make strides in 2013-14. Mix that with the addition of a strong perimeter defender in Errick Peck and the defensively minded Bryson Scott and you have a team that should see major improvements in this department.
Shooting. End of story.
We can go on about how Purdue's defense played poorly last season and we can even detail their issues with turnovers and struggling to overcome deficits, but they all pale in comparison to shooting. The defense, while struggling compared to previous seasons, wasn't a complete failure (and a lot of the defensive issues stem from the issues with the offense). Turnovers, while costly, can be chalked up to the team's youth last season and a true freshman point guard running the show. And of course the lack of leadership, mixed with the inexperience, can explain some of the issues overcoming adversity, with both areas looking to be corrected by a hungry team looking to bounce back from a disappointing season.
But when everything is said and done, it's all about shooting. Last season Purdue was 213th in field goal percentage, 259th in three point percentage and 293rd in free throw percentage. If Purdue wants to improve and get back to the tournament it starts with shooting and will need to be a major improvement. Purdue has addressed this to some extent by bringing in seniors Sterling Carter and Errick Peck, while freshman Kendall Stephens looks like he has potential to light it up from downtown.
Besides the need to simply get better from outside, the rest of Purdue's offense hinges on how much their perimeter shooting will improve. Both Terone and Ronnie Johnson have showcased the ability to attack the rim and score inside, but if the team can't shoot from outside it will allow defenders to sag off and make it more difficult to get to the bucket. This becomes an even bigger issue if the Johnson brothers can't capitalize on the free throws they pick up on their drives. Also, if Purdue struggles from outside it keeps the team from being able to space the floor and will make it considerably more difficult for bigs A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson to score down low.
Look for Matt Painter's Boilermakers to make a return to form when it comes to defense. Last year's team was disappointing on the defensive side of things, but the defensive failures were also rooted heavily in the team's youth and offensive deficiencies. As Purdue brings a more experienced team to the table, expect the defense to improve all around. With Purdue likely to improve on their turnover margin and shot selection, the transition defense should see a considerable improvement. As the younger Boilermakers spend more time in Painter's system, expect their defensive efforts to see significant improvements across the board.
To say last season was disappointing for Purdue would be an understatement. Things look to be trending upward for the Boilermakers though, as they bring back basically everyone of value and will field a starting lineup heavy on returning starters. The team last year got off to a horrible non-conference start and made strides in Big Ten play, creating a heavy feeling of optimism for the future at the end of last season. Purdue's non-conference schedule this year weakens considerably and should allow for a much better start, while a weaker Big Ten conference will make it easier to pick up wins in 2014.
Last season the Boilermakers went 8-10 in conference play. While that record would be a disappointment this season in West Lafayette, if they take care of business out of conference it'd likely get them into the NCAA Tournament. The Boilermakers will need to cut down on turnovers and improve their shooting, but the post-season is in reach for Purdue. It'll all likely come down to how much they improve from the perimeter, but even modest improvement should help Purdue get over the hump.
The Boilermakers won't be contending for the Big Ten title and won't be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, but this is a team that should end up in the middle of the pack, with the potential to fall anywhere from fifth to seventh. The Boilermakers should take care of business out of conference and how they handle conference play will determine where they end up seeded in the NCAA Tournament. An at-large bid with a NCAA seed somewhere between 7th and 11th appears to be the likely end result for the Boilermakers this season.
Prediction: 7th in Big Ten, NCAA Tournament
2013-14 Purdue Preview: