It's still early in the season but lets take a look at what Purdue's done and where the program stands heading into their first major test of the season.
1. Winning the close games
Purdue was plagued by several close losses early last season. The Boilermakers inconsistency on offense was a major thorn in it's side and the team had a tendency to go cold at the worst of times. Mix a streaky offense with the inability to make clutch shots and you had a recipe for disaster. Early on the Boilers suffered close defeats against Bucknell, Villanova, Oregon State, Eastern Michigan and Xavier. Simply put, all of these games were not only winnable, but should have been wins. This team went 7-6 out of conference, flip four of those games in favor of Purdue and the team could have been 11-2 heading into Big Ten play. Besides a major overhaul for the teams RPI, Purdue would have ended up at 19-12 heading into the Big Ten tourney and been a legitimate NCAA bubble team.
So while this year some of Purdue's struggles have been a tad difficult to watch, at least they're winning. If this was the same team as last year there is no chance they would have saw a clutch three and pair of free throws help them overcome Northern Kentucky. There's little chance they would have came back from their blown lead against Rider and would have likely packed it in once falling behind and still trailing late. Knowing last years team, they likely would have found a way to go cold for five minutes and lose to Siena. Several of the games this year haven't been pretty but they're wins, end of story. Instead of crippling losses piling up on their resume, Purdue is adding wins. And with the Big Ten as loaded as it is, a weak non-conference SOS will likely mean little if the Boilermakers hit 20 wins. Outside of today's game against Oklahoma State and possibly the road trip to West Virginia, Purdue should be favored the rest of the way until conference play. If this team wants a NCAA bid they'll have to take care of business now and so far they've done a decent job.
Purdue's roster is balanced across the board and it allows the team to field a variety of looks and run almost any lineup imaginable. With A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson, Painter has the option to play big with two guys taller than 6'10 (and he can still mix in 6'6 Errick Peck at the three if need be). Of course with Peck's well-rounded ability to play the three or four, Painter can play small ball. Painter can also swap Hammons out of Simpson at the five, field four guard lineups, rotate four different guys at the point (Ronnie, Terone, Sterling, Bryson), mix in several different rotational players, etc. Hell, he can even decide which three point specialist he wants on the court at any given time and has options for said player to run the one, two, three or four. Simply put, Purdue can bring an almost endless array of lineups and has so many options across the board that the team might actually suffer a bit from not playing with a more consistent lineup. This versatility can make the team more difficult to prepare for and allows Purdue to switch up their offensive and defensive looks as desired, a major improvement from a team seemingly forced to play small since JaJuan Johnson graduated.
3. This team has legitimate depth
The Boilermakers are a relatively young squad but the team brings quite a bit of experience to the table, even though most of their players haven't been in West Lafayette for very long. This depth helps round out the roster and gives Painter plenty of options across the board. So far through five games the team has ten different players with at least 14 minutes per game. Those ten players all have at least 5 points per game. The end result with the teams depth is that it seems like every other game or two someone else is producing for the team. One game you'll see guard Sterling Carter provide a spark off the bench, then the next will be Rapheal Davis and so on.
This works because now when players are struggling Painter can simply look else where for numbers. Last season Purdue more or less got forced to rely on the same set of guys and if they couldn't get it done then the team would stall out. Last year's roster wasn't much thinner then this year, but the roster seemed to be filled with several players that didn't seem to be on the same page with Painter (leading to a lack of playing time, especially the case it seemed for Jacob Lawson). So far this season all of the guys seem to be buying into Painter's system and the ability to spread the work load around has been working out pretty well for Purdue.
4. The offense is improved and the defense is more or less the same as last season.
The offense hasn't been perfect, with a few issues from outside, but there's been some noticeable improvements and plenty of potential making it look like Purdue's offense should be a major improvement over last season. While three point shooting still has room for improvement, the Boilermakers have guys who can step up and hit from outside. Last year they had D.J. Byrd, who was overused because a lack of other options, and no one else that could hit from outside consistently. This season Purdue has seen Sterling Carter, Kendall Stephens and Errick Peck all show the ability to hit from outside. Consistency would be a nice touch but it's still an improvement. Also, the ability to spread the ball around has increased the variety in Purdue's scoring, as the team has the ability to score both inside and out with a seemingly higher success rate. So far Purdue's offense is averaging 86.2 points per game, an increase of 15.6 points per game at this point last year.
Unfortunately the defense still hasn't completely turned the corner. There's been improvement, some of which stems from improved shot selection limiting easy points in transition, but it's still not all the way there. The team's ability to rebound is completely hit or miss and they still seem to play a bit off outside, even when the shot clock is winding down. Part of it at times is the opponents ability to hit big shots, even when guarded, but Purdue's defense still seems to be a little too lax at times instead of constantly harassing opponents. Of course this could be an attempt to limit fouls, though it was an issue common last season so the foul reason seems like a bit of an excuse.
5. Free throws will cost this team
Purdue was a horrible free throw shooting team last season. Even with their problematic players spending hours in the gym working on form, they simply couldn't convert from the charity stripe. So it was definitely refreshing to see Ronnie Johnson (possibly the worst FT shooter on the team last year) make two clutch free throws to win the opening game versus Northern Kentucky. Of course the feeling of satisfaction from those two shots is fading as Purdue is 62.3% from the line, keeping them outside of the top 300 in the nation.
In a four point win versus Rider the Boilermakers were 16 of 31 from the line. In an eight point win versus Siena the Boilermakers were 22 of 37. These numbers will cost Purdue games when their competition improves and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Right now there's a fouling pandemic sweeping the nation and it's almost detrimental to Purdue's program as they can't convert on their increase load from the charity stripe. There's been progress elsewhere on the court, now Purdue needs to get it together and fix one of their most annoying issues.
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