Purdue has fallen on hard times the last two seasons. After the last remaining Baby Boiler Robbie Hummel graduated Purdue hasn't been back to the NCAA Tournament, the end result of poor shooting, lack of leadership and a handful of players refusing to buy into Painter's system and play as a team. Now that the Boilermakers have essentially purged the remaining roster it's hopefully time to build things back up in West Lafayette.
The only problem is that the last two seasons have started to create some tension within the program and Matt Painter's time is starting to wind down if he can't get Purdue up and running again. A coach that was beloved just a few years ago has quickly drawn the ire of a handful of vocal fans calling for his head. That of course means Painter has to get it right and it has to happen now.
Once again Purdue has plenty of talent, plenty of fresh faces with a ton of potential and just enough returning guys to field a team that can hang and win games versus pretty much everyone in the Big Ten. Of course that same team is plagued with guys who come and go and have failed to consistently produce results, meaning Purdue can push the top Big Ten teams to the wire and then lose to Penn State the next night out. If the Boilermakers want to make the jump it's going to have to develop consistency and improve offensively, something that has more or less been the same story the last few seasons. Can Painter finally piece things together or is it time to start thinking about moving on? I think this year is a bit too early (unless the team collapses once again down the stretch), but it should help paint a clearer picture heading into next season.
Projected Starting Lineup
C: A.J. Hammons (Jr., 7'0")
F: Vince Edwards (Fr., 6'7")
F: Rapheal Davis (Jr., 6'5")
G: Bryson Scott (So., 6'1")
G: Jon Octeus (Sr., 6'4")
6th: Kendall Stephens (So., 6'6")
This is tricky to predict because there's so much potential variation and the lineup/rotation will likely not solidify well into the season. The first thing we do know, though, is that junior A.J. Hammons will anchor the frontcourt at the five. Past that it's safe to say Bryson Scott will likely start but after that it's essentially up in the air across the board. One has to think senior transfer Jon Octeus will get the first shot at the point guard position over freshman P.J. Thompson, but if he struggles we could still see Bryson Scott take over the spot. Of course Scott struggled last year at the point, so it'd be best to keep him off the ball. After that there's going to be a heavy emphasis to keep junior Rapheal Davis in the lineup due to his emerging leadership, even if his offense tends to come and go, while Vince Edwards will get an early look simply because the team needs offense and Edwards looks to be the guy. Of course there's still three point specialist Kendall Stephens, forward Basil Smotherman and freshman Dakota Mathias all vying for playing time and likely to get plenty of it. Purdue's 2014-15 rotation very well could play out like Iowa's team last year and look for it to vary per whoever they're facing that night.
What to Watch For
Who will fill the offensive void left by the Johnson brothers - With Terone and Ronnie scoring 31.6% of Purdue's points last year and shooting a third of the teams shots, there's a sizable hole to fill. Luckily for Purdue neither guard was very efficient, meaning it won't be hard to match or improve on their numbers. That being said, people actually need to take their shots and that's where the questions come in. When it comes to guys returning this season there are a handful of guys who don't shoot the ball very often. Coming to mind are Rapheal Davis and Basil Smotherman, combining for 7.9 field goal attempts per game last year. Both guys also routinely disappeared on offense from time to time and will likely need to play bigger roles, but the reality is guys like Vince Edwards and guards Bryson Scott and Jon Octeus will likely eat up a lot of those available shots. Will the Boilers be able to improve from the field? They need to if they want to get better, with the teams inability to shoot the rock being a key reason as to why they've struggled so heavily the last two seasons.
How will the freshmen pan out this year? - It seems like Purdue has been inexperienced every season since the Baby Boilers left and I guess that makes sense thanks to roster turnover and the heavy usage of freshmen almost every season. This year will be more of the same, with wing Vince Edwards likely being counted on to be a key player if Purdue wants to improve offensively. Past Edwards there's the hope that Dakota Mathias can eat up some minutes and add some points to the mix while P.J. Thompson will attempt to develop at the point off the bench. Isaac Haas will be a key player to spell Hammons, who lost valuable minutes last year thanks to his fouling problems, and may be needed to start as early as next season. Jacquil Taylor, a forward that kind of comes off as a poor man's JaJuan Johnson, may be the odd man out and could be left out of the rotation, but if the big can bring his mid-range game to the college level he could be a big deal going forward. Especially since Purdue doesn't really have a legitimate option at the four, with Basil Smotherman being a bit lackluster so far.
Purdue's non-conference results- Purdue seems to drop a few games it has no business losing as of late when it comes to the first two months of the season. Sometimes it's games they should have ultimately won (Villanova, Xavier) and sometimes it's just "uuummmm, what are you doing!?!?" games like when they lost to Washington State. That means there's going to be pressure to avoid any upsets in their set of winnable games, especially since the non-conference slate is full of teams set to have horrendous RPIs that will hurt the Boilers non-conference strength of schedule. That also means Purdue pretty much has to win games like their match against North Carolina State in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge, as well as probably their road trip to Vanderbilt and this year's Crossroads Classic showdown with rival Notre Dame. The Boilers will get a slight SOS boost thanks to their involvement in the Maui Invitational, starting off with Kansas State and following it with either Arizona or Missouri, but there's a solid chance Purdue could go 1-2 in Hawaii with the win coming against Chaminade, which will do very little to move the needle.
It should also be noted the Boilermakers will likely need a positive first two months because if they enter the Big Ten season treading water it could create an insurmountable hole for the Boilers.
Can the Boilers develop some consistency? - What Purdue will we get? That was the question that commonly arose last season. We have the Purdue that was getting destroyed by Oklahoma State, the Purdue that lost to Washington State by 15, the Purdue that almost lost to Northern Kentucky and the Purdue that ended the season with seven straight losses. We also had the Purdue that erased a 20 plus point deficit versus Oklahoma State to four points, the Purdue team that beat Minnesota and Nebraska, the Purdue team that gave Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State everything they could handle and destroyed Indiana. As if the inconsistency throughout the season wasn't enough, the team routinely looked great for parts of games and then looked absolutely awful, routinely losing games that they could have won if they could just piece together a solid 40 minutes instead of being so up and down. So will Purdue finally be able to achieve consistency throughout an entire 40 minutes and from week to week? If they don't it's going to be another long season. The reality is the last two years we've seen a Purdue team capable of being a postseason team, they just can't sustain their highs while their lows are that bad. Clean up the act and keep things rolling and the talent is there to make some noise in the conference.
Who to Watch For
A.J. Hammons - Hammons freshman season was plagued with an inconsistent and questionable level of effort from the seven footer. His sophomore season was plagued with ticky tacky fouls and turnovers. Even worse, whenever Hammons got into early foul trouble he seemed to struggle getting back into the thick of things after sitting early. The effort level is there now but Hammons needs to clean up his game and cut out the fouls. Luckily this year the team brought in a viable backup in Isaac Haas, likely a considerable improvement over Travis Carroll, but Hammons is still the guy here. Defensively the center is likely the best in the conference and his ability to rebound is top notch, so being able to stay out on the court for more minutes each night will be key. One issue that arose last year was some problems with turnovers, mainly caused by putting the ball down instead of going straight to the rim. That's fixable and hopefully A.J. will figure that one out. Another thing to consider is the inefficiency from Purdue's point guards and their inability to shoot the ball. If Purdue can develop the ability to hit from outside and improve at the point it's going to open up the inside and Octeus should be able to set up the big man with some additional looks down low. If Hammons remains focused he should be able to make the leap from borderline draft pick and launch his stock to a potential lottery pick, with Purdue reaping the benefits this year (before likely losing him next season).
Vince Edwards - It might not be fair, but the offense is going to likely come down pretty heavily on Vince Edwards. The freshman was Painter's prized target in 2014 and he managed to land the recruit. Edwards has been considerably underrated by most recruiting services and could be one of the better freshmen Purdue has seen in a few years. With the Johnson brothers gone Purdue has plenty of offensive production to replace and Edwards is going to be one of the main guys Painter is hoping can fill the void. Sophomore Bryson Scott will likely also be key here, as well as Kendall Stephens and his ability to hit from deep, but the rest of the guys on the roster are either too inconsistent (Davis, Smotherman) or too green (Mathias, Thompson, Taylor) to rely on. If Edwards hits the ground running alongside Scott and company, Purdue could see a considerably more productive backcourt after the inefficient unit led by Terone and Ronnie the last two seasons. That would go a very long way in improving and trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament in 2015.
Bryson Scott / Jon Octeus - The point guard position is going to be key for the Boilermakers and it'll be interesting to see how it pans out because there is ultimately three different options. Long gone is former starter Ronnie Johnson, an inefficient volume shooting point guard that didn't care to pass the ball very often unless it was going to his older brother. The decision to transfer likely forced Matt Painter's hand and led to three star recruit P.J. Thompson earning a scholarship offer late into the recruiting period, leading some people (like me) to believe Thompson only earned the offer because of Johnson's departure. Not exactly thrilling news. The end result was it looked like the offense might have to run through a freshman in 2014-15 and that was going to be problematic.
Luckily for Purdue, though, Colorado State transfer Jon Octeus didn't qualify at UCLA and ended up in West Lafayette instead. That works because the reality is the point guard position probably would have fell to Bryson Scott, a combo guard that struggled heavily at the point and should benefit playing off the ball at his more natural location. That means Jon Octeus has to be at least competent enough running the offense to keep Scott off the ball and Thompson as a backup. Octeus apparently was told by Steve Alford he would have started at UCLA from day one, so the talent is there. He's also a senior so experience isn't an issue, but one has to wonder if his late addition to the program may cause issues with trying to mesh with the other Boilermakers. Either way, Purdue needs better play from the point guard and they need to have Bryson Scott improve offensively. Both of these things will likely depend on how well Octeus can play from the get go and that's a lot of pressure on a guy who wasn't with the program until last month.
Purdue won't be as bad as some people claim they will. The Boilermakers have enough winnable games in the first two months and will likely add a nice home win against North Carolina State in early December because for some reason Purdue straight up does not lose in the ACC / Big Ten Challenge (won the last five). And sure, they'll probably drop the first two games in Maui, as well as the Crossroads Classic again and some random inexcusable upset, but the idea of beating NCSU and Vanderbilt, as well as starting at 9-4 is pretty feasible. That number means Purdue could work it's way into the NCAA Tournament bubble or could be destined for the NIT, but at the very least it doesn't essentially kill their season before January even hits.
As for the Big Ten, well the schedule isn't that bad. Have you heard of Big Ten teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Maryland? Are they supposed to be good? Well Purdue only plays all of those teams once, while adding Rutgers, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois to the schedule twice. As for fellow bottom feeders like Northwestern and Penn State, the Boilers land both of those teams at home. Purdue has the talent and home field advantage to beat both of those teams, is straight up better than Rutgers and the idea of them splitting series with Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois is most definitely not crazy talk. And let's not forget that regardless of how awful Purdue can be, they still come to play some nights. Look no further than giving teams like Ohio State and Michigan everything they could handle last year, dominating Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2013 and even winning at Illinois last season.
Purdue will win more games than expected and I don't anticipate another collapse to close the season out. The reality is Purdue was 5-7 through 12 games last year and probably better than their end result. They also had around five winnable conference games they couldn't pull out as well. Purdue likely won't climb out of the gutter and into the NCAA Tournament, but if they climb back to the middle of the pack and earn a NIT bid it shouldn't surprise you...even if you picked them to finish 13th.
Projected Regular Season Record: 17-14 (8-10)