The Purdue Boilermakers missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in quite awhile under Matt Painter, a rare miss after six years of successful seasons. Of course a lot of that was the end result of youth and inexperience, but it didn't help that the team started 6-6 heading into conference play. A year later and while the Boilermakers aren't quite there yet, the team is sitting in considerably better shape at 10-3 heading into their Big Ten opener. The question is how much have the Boilermakers improved from last season and will they be able to get back to the NCAA Tournament in March.
Luckily for Purdue, at 10-3 it'll be considerably easier to get to the NCAA Tournament than the uphill battle they faced last season. This team, as bad as it was at times, still went 8-10 in conference play last season and simply matching that mark would put them in position for a potential NCAA bid. While Purdue does have a bad loss in Washington State, it's the only major blemish so far as the Oklahoma State and Butler losses won't hurt their resume and the road win versus West Virginia was a nice pick-up. Now Purdue will likely need to win at least nine or ten games in the Big Ten, a reachable accomplishment when you realize that they play Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State and Minnesota a combined eight times.
But the original question was how improved has Purdue been this season, so let's take a look at what we know so far.
Purdue Can Finally Deal With Adversity
Last season Purdue lost eight games by single digits and an additional two games by 10 points. Purdue's inability to win close games tended to be the end result of a team that struggled to make clutch plays and failed to hit shots when they needed to do so. Because of this you had numerous situations where the offense would stutter at the end of regulation and allow teams to close out games pretty easily. Besides the teams struggles with close games, it seemed like whenever Purdue would fall behind the team would be incapable of mounting a comeback, routinely burying their head in the sand and finishing the game looking relatively lifeless.
This year has already seen quite a bit of change for Purdue. So far the Boilermakers have been 6-1 in non-conference games decided by eight points or less. Even more telling is how the team has won in games versus Northern Kentucky and Siena (second game), with the Boilermakers stepping up and hitting key shots in the closing seconds of each game. Purdue set the tone early versus Northern Kentucky when Errick Peck hit a three pointer in the last minute, followed by two Ronnie Johnson free throws to help them escape with the win. If this was last year's Boilermakers these shots wouldn't have been converted and the team would likely be sitting at 7-6 or 8-5, if not worse.
Also, the team has shown quite a bit of fight compared to last seasons Boilers. Down big in the second half against Oklahoma State, most people expected Purdue to pack it in. However, Purdue fought back and narrowed down a massive deficit to four points late in the second half and put themselves in position for the upset at the end. Versus Butler Purdue also fell behind pretty decisively before coming back and making it game late in the second half. For a team that appeared to give up whenever they fell behind last season, this teams resiliency is a nice change from last year's squad.
Free Throws Will Cost Purdue Games
The Boilermakers have struggled from the free throw line seemingly forever and that trend has continued once again so far this season. While we've seen some improvement from Ronnie Johnson, the team as a whole has shot 65.4% from the line, putting them 284th in the nation. That simply will not cut it for the Boilermakers. It's safe to say it would have been interesting to see how the Oklahoma State and Butler games would have fared if Purdue wouldn't have shot 63 and 67 percent from the line in each game.
Interestingly enough though, the team fares much better in free throws made, as they currently rank just outside the top 100. That is the end result of being 51st in free throw attempts, showing that Purdue is capable of getting to the line (a positive if they could just make these shots). If Purdue could simply hit these shots the team would look considerably better and a lot of their closer games would have been double digit wins, so it's a major area in need of improvement. I will give Purdue credit for one thing, though, as the team struggles with free throws but has been considerably better hitting free throws in the closing minutes when they try to close out games.
The team still needs to see their free throw percentage trend upwards though. Purdue has been able to get by without hitting from the line in games versus a medley of different cupcakes, but if they want to beat the much improved competition in the Big Ten or pick up any upsets, their free throw woes will need to be worked on. This is especially true for Terone Johnson, who is once again struggling from the line. Johnson has the third worst free throw percentage for Purdue, but is also the Boilermaker with the most attempts. 58.5% will not cut it come Big Ten season.
An Improved Offense Still Struggles With Consistency
Purdue's offense has seen quite a bit of improvement so far in 2013. Last season saw the Boilermakers shoot 42.6% from the field (213th), 45.7% from two (260th) and 32% (259th) from beyond the arc. So far through 13 games this team is shooting 45.4% from the field (133rd), 49.3% from two (181st) and 35.4% from three (134th). The improvement isn't as much as Painter would like, but it's a start. A lot of the improvement can be credited to a handful of fresh faces that have looked pretty good so far this season.
One area that has benefited Purdue has been the arrival of senior transfers Sterling Carter and Errick Peck. Both seniors provide Purdue with capable outside shooters. Also in the mix is freshman Kendall Stephens, one of Purdue's best three point shooters. This team last year had almost no one outside of D.J. Byrd that could hit from outside so having a variety of options is a nice refresher.
Of course the team can do more than shoot from outside, with the Johnson brothers and Bryson Scott all being viable options to drive to the rim on any giving possession. Unfortunately for Purdue, though, all three players have too much faith in their ability, commonly putting their head down and running the court only to force up a horrible, off-center leaner in the lane with little chance of success. Besides having a set of guards capable of driving, the team also has two capable bigs in A.J. Hammons and Jay Simpson, both solid options to produce down low. Oddly enough Purdue has strayed away from feeding their big men and it's an area they would benefit from capitalizing on.
And that leads to the problem with Purdue offensively. This team has so many options when it comes to scoring but there's little overall consistency in their production. Why? Well it seems like time and time again the offense slows down and starts passing the ball around before settling on a contested jumper that usually rims out. Purdue has the ability to score from all over the court with a balanced roster but seems like the offense shuts down and settles more often then not. This leads to periods of play where the team struggles to score and has been an issue for Purdue, as whenever they build a lead they usually cannot close out the game and let their opponents creep back in.
Purdue's non-conference schedule has shown that this team has improved quite a bit from last season, but the question is will it be enough come March. The team has finally found a way to deal with adversity and has improved quite a bit on the offensive side of things, but the Boilermakers are once again struggling from the free throw line and dealing with consistency. If Purdue truly wants to get it together, there are a few areas of improvement they'll need to capitalize on. First off, the team needs to get it together from the charity stripe. They also need to work Hammons and Simpson down low more often, taking advantage of having two talented bigs on the roster. Last of all, the team needs to work on cutting down on wasted possessions.
If Purdue can improve from the line, work the ball down low and make better decisions on offense...this team will easily be in the NCAA Tournament. If the team can simply cut down on possessions where one of the Johnsons blindly drives out of control or the team kills the shot clock passing the ball around the perimeter, the offense should look considerably better. These wasted possessions have been detrimental to consistency and routinely hurt Purdue's shooting numbers and it makes no sense when you realize they're just the end result of lazy basketball.
Will Purdue make all of the necessary improvements? Unlikely, as the team still seems stuck in some of the same habits they fell victim to last season. Now don't get me wrong, the team is improved enough that they're more than capable of getting back to the tournament, but it's safe to say that Purdue is going to make it interesting throughout the rest of the season. Look for Purdue to come out in the Big Ten and pick off several top Big Ten teams, only to follow up these games with inexcusable losses in entirely winnable games. It's almost became the norm for Purdue the last two seasons and will likely continue on once again.
At least Purdue is entering conference play in a much better position than last season.