Purdue had a perfect opportunity for a nice road victory and an opportunity to make up for their prior loss to North Florida with this past weekend's trip to Nashville. Unfortunately for Purdue they couldn't capitalize as they came up short versus Vanderbilt late Saturday night. So now what for the Boilermakers after another non-conference setback?
The last couple seasons the Boilermakers have dropped several games they had no business losing and coming into Saturday night I think it's safe to say the thought was Purdue was in position to pick up a nice enough win in a rare non-conference road game. Unfortunately no one filled Vanderbilt in on this, with Vandy shooting 63% at the break. Usually teams don't maintain that pace for the entire game and that was the case entering the second half when Vanderbilt decided to up the ante and shoot 75% (9 of 12) the first 11 minutes of the second half, opening up a 67-48 lead. While Purdue wasn't perfect, struggling with turnovers in the first half and shooting from beyond the arc, you're not going to go on the road and beat a SEC team that shoots the ball that effectively.
The problem is now Purdue is 8-3 with the likely scenario of entering conference play at 9-4 with a bad loss (North Florida), essentially negating their early season wins against Missouri, BYU and North Carolina State. There is still a doozy of a game coming up next week that could be a resume defining win as they'll get a surging Notre Dame team this weekend, but an Irish squad that edged Michigan State and blew out Florida State could be a major problem for the Boilermakers. Wrapping up the non-conference slate will be a winnable game against Gardner-Webb, meaning Purdue will be 9-4 in a worst-case scenario (which also happens to be the most realistic scenario).
That's not bad and not the end of the world for Purdue, but it does make things a bit more difficult in what will be a heavily contest conference season. Of course with a handful of teams that were supposed to be strong in the conference looking decisively average (here's to you, Nebraska and Michigan), 2015 looks like it could be just as unpredictable as the conference was last year. If the Boilers can't upset Notre Dame, though, it does mean they'll need to finish with at least 9 wins in the Big Ten if they want to stay in the race for the postseason, something that could be a challenge for an inexperienced squad.
Of course it should be noted that the Boilermakers have played well enough early that there should be more confidence heading into January and that the idea of a 12th or 13th place finish seems a bit outlandish. We've already detailed the main flaws with Purdue, mainly turnovers and the previously mentioned inexperience, but the combination of A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas at center, emergence of Kendall Stephens and Rapheal Davis, as well as the play from Vince Edwards should allow Purdue to overachieve based on preseason predictions.
One thing to keep an eye on from here on out is how guys like Bryson Scott, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson progress throughout the upcoming months. Scott struggled as a freshman and it was considered to be the end result of him being forced to run the point. With the addition of Jon Octeus it was speculated Scott would improve considerably playing off the ball, something that has yet to happen. On the other hand Mathias and Thompson have shown flashes of being capable pieces off the bench, but until they can consistently produce those results they're going to be hit or miss. While Purdue is starting to see several players take control and emerge as playmakers, the back end of the roster is starting to fade into irrelevancy. This of course could lead to Painter trimming the rotation, though Scott or Thompson will likely need to remain involved to back up Octeus.
Regardless of if you're a fan of Purdue or not it will be interesting to see how their season pans out in Big Ten play. This team has enough guys on the roster and enough talent to create plenty of problems for just about every program in the conference, while also having enough flaws that put them at risk of losing every night as well. There was some talk about the freshmen class this season being the "Baby Boilers pt. II" and if that's going to happen it's going to need a kickstart soon, preferably in Indianapolis this week for the Crossroads Classic.
Even if the Boilermakers start to fade as winter approaches, at the very least we'll get to watch an improved and much more enjoyable team then what fans were forced to endure the past two seasons.