In 2012-13 the Boilermakers opened up the season with an inexplicable loss to Bucknell, likely the end result of having to play without guard Terone Johnson. The loss kick started a rough 1-3 beginning to the season as Purdue would struggle on it's way to a 6-6 non-conference record.
In 2013-14 the Boilermakers managed to win their first five games, though the winning streak was largely uninspiring as Purdue barely snuck out a one point win versus Northern Kentucky before barely edging bottom feeders Rider and Siena. That of course was followed by a loss to Oklahoma State and a horrendous 15 point defeat to Washington State.
So while it's only five games, Purdue's 2014 season has felt considerably better than what we've seen in the last two disappointing seasons. Compared to the 1-3 start in 2012 and the slim wins in 2013, Purdue has blown out every team they've beaten so far, including a 40 point win versus Samford and 52 point win against Grambling State. The closest win so far, a 20 point home victory over IUPUI, was only that close because of IUPUI's 6 of 8 shooting from three in the first half. Entering Maui there was some concern on how Purdue would handle the trip, even more so after an atrocious first half that saw Purdue record zero offensive rebounds and 11 turnovers on their way to a 24-39 halftime deficit.
Then the second half happened and the Boilermakers cleaned up their act. After doing nothing on the offensive glass the Boilers recorded seven offensive boards, while cutting their turnovers down to two. They scored 55 points, more than doubling their first half total, and almost made a game of it before bowing out 79-88. Their strong second half carried over into the second round of the Maui Invitational, opening up a 58-24 lead over Mizzou with less than 14 minutes left in the second half. While on one hand Missouri has had a rough start to the season after last years 23 wins, Purdue now has a realistic possibility of two wins in their trip to Hawaii, including one over a power five opponent and another over a talented BYU squad. That's a considerable step up from what I felt like could have been a 1-2 trip with a lone win over Division II opponent Chaminade.
That puts a bit of pressure on tomorrow evenings BYU outing, with Purdue potentially putting itself in pretty good position if they can get to 5-1. With a remaining non-conference slate highlighted by North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, Purdue should have a shot in all of their games heading into Big Ten play. That means the idea of a 11-2 start to the season is within reach (assuming a slip up somewhere). Of course Purdue could drop a few games just because, but the fast start so far has created considerably more optimism this time around.
A lot of that has to stem from a team that, while not perfect, has shown improvement. The late addition of Jon Octeus gives Purdue what may be their best point guard since Lewis Jackson was still around, while Vince Edwards has plenty of potential as a versatile wing that can give the offense a spark it's desperately needed the last two seasons. Guys like Rapheal Davis, Basil Smotherman and Dakota Mathias are all growing into their respective roles while sophomore Bryson Scott seems like he's starting to turn it around after a horrible first two games.
Now that being said, there are still issues Purdue needs to address and unfortunately they're not exactly new problems for the team. Something that became a glaring issue last season for starting center A.J. Hammons was his issues with fouling, something that has apparently carried over to this season. Even more problematic is the fact that once Hammons rides the bench early he seems to struggle to get involved with the offense after sitting. Luckily this season the Boilermakers have a bit of a solution to the problem, with freshman Isaac Haas looking like a fairly capable backup that is a step up from Travis Carroll.
Another two issues that have carried over from last year include turnovers and shot selection, with Purdue's onslaught of turnovers ultimately leading to the Kansas State loss on Monday. The issue seems to rear it's ugly head time and time again with the only saving grace being that it wasn't one particularly player playing sloppy, but rather a well balanced affair of debauchery. Some of Matt Painter's best teams managed to play especially well thanks to their lack of turnovers, but the hope is that some of these issues stem from youth and will work themselves out. Of course junior A.J. Hammons is leading the way with 2.5 turnovers in 18.3 minutes of playing time per night, but it's something Purdue fans know all too well.
I also mentioned shot selection and a lot of that stems from the team running down the field in transition and firing up deep and off balanced three pointers for little to no reason. Kendall Stephens is the main culprit here and at times watching him fire up some of these shots makes you want to throw your arms in the air and shout at your television. Luckily for Purdue the sophomore has hit on 15 of his 29 treys and the teams addition of Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards means Purdue may finally have multiple three point shooters on the team for the first time since D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith were still around.
Heading into this season it was easy to see why this year is so critical to Painter and if his career will continue in West Lafayette. While there was at least some sense of optimism over the teams relatively fresh roster, the last two years have more or less lulled the programs fan base into a sense of pessimism and hopelessness, assuming the worst after a disastrous turn of events for the team. Early season success, especially in college basketball, usually means very little. That being said, Purdue has shown the foundation and building blocks to take this program out of the cellar and just needs to keep playing at the same level. If the team can come reasonably close to matching their level of play in the last three halves of basketball, this team should be in good shape come New Years. That would mean a middle of the pack Big Ten season would likely lead to a NCAA Tournament appearance.
Of course let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, this is Purdue and we've found plenty of ways to look great one night and then crap the bed for the next several weeks. The truth is that this was a program written off by almost everyone except the most faithful fans and now they've seen enough to wonder if Purdue could trend upwards enough to get back to the postseason. While the NCAA Tournament might still be a bit of a stretch, Purdue is making progress and that's something we didn't see much of last season. NCAA or not, the NIT should be the minimal goal for the Boilers and that's a step up from the expectations just a few weeks ago.