Purdue's impressive start to the season has came to a sudden halt with the team losing their last three games heading into the Big Ten season. Not only that, but the North Florida and Gardner-Webb losses are both crippling defeats that will be very difficult for the Boilermakers to overcome if they get things squared away and make a push for the postseason. So what happened and where does this team go from here?
Well first things first, I'm not going to take this an opportunity to insult a group of college students I don't personally know, claiming they're not trying or that they don't care. That's nothing but a cheap and lazy excuse to detour from the actual issue, even more so as there has been evidence to suggest that the players do actually care. While you can probably realize that the team likely overlooked Gardner-Webb, the reality is Purdue's early start involved quite a bit of overachieving from the team as a whole and it looks like we may be seeing a regression to the mean.
The high point so far for the Boilermakers this season was the tail end of the teams trip to Hawaii, with Purdue demolishing Missouri, knocking off BYU and then picking up a solid win a few days later versus North Carolina State. The question is how good were those wins to begin with? As impressive as Purdue was versus Missouri, the Tigers are also sitting at 5-6, have lost four games by double digits and even dropped one to 4-9 UMKC. As for the Wolfpack, they may be pretty good when everything is said and done, but so far their best win has came against Tennessee and they've also dropped games to the likes of Wofford while barely winning against South Florida and Boise State.
Even more telling is that while Purdue was off to a quick start they weren't exactly playing great basketball. One thing that the team did benefit from was a hot start from Kendall Stephens, who was still trigger happy from deep like his freshman season. Once he cooled from outside it limited the efficiency of the offense and the teams scoring became more difficult. Mix that with a team that was already struggling heavily with turnovers and free throw shooting and you had a relatively flawed team that did enough to win even with all of the mistakes. I think the thought process was if the team could win while playing sloppy ball against teams like BYU and NCSU, that they could at least get to 10 or 11 wins by the 31st.
That wasn't the case, though. The Notre Dame loss makes sense, and it was largely anticipated, but the remaining three games were all matchups most fans felt comfortable heading into. Unfortunately Purdue's problems with turnovers and free throws continued, committing at least 12 turnovers in all three games and hitting 50% from the charity stripe versus North Florida. The teams inability to hit from outside was similar to last season, likely based heavily on Kendall Stephens going 3 of 15 from deep during said games.
And that's what we have here at Purdue. The team has shown progress but there are notable issues that have been present all season and they're now finally costing the Boilermakers games. The reality is the teams ability to shoot from outside will go hand in hand with how hot Kendall Stephens is, with the sophomore being streaky and currently riding a nasty cold streak. Year after year the team still hasn't been able to shoot free throws, even with numerous players constantly trying to get it corrected on their own time, and we're now seeing some issues with this squads ability to play defense. These aren't issues where the players "aren't trying" or "don't care," these are fundamental issues that the players struggle with and it's finally reared it's ugly head this season.
So Now What?
With Big Ten play about to start it's going to be interesting. On one hand you'd think that a program losing to North Florida and Gardner-Webb means they should be in for a long winter when they play in the Big Ten. On the other hand, one of the conferences projected top teams has lost to Incarnate Word and Hawaii, while entering overtime versus lowly Loyola Marymount tied at 35. Another team predicted to do well in the Big Ten has lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, while a conference staple has dropped a game to SWAC opponent Texas Southern, a team that had won one game prior to the outing. Or in other words, the non-conference slate means we should expect the unexpected when it comes to the Big Ten race.
If Purdue can get hot at the right team it could help them pick up some wins the next few months. There's enough talent here as is to compete with the mid to lower level of the conference and the team, when everything is clicking, can likely keep pace with the top of the conference on the right night. At the very worst the remaining teams in the conference have at least proven that anyone can lose to anyone when it comes to the Big Ten. There's still some time to get things smoothed out and the Big Ten offers a somewhat clean slate for the Boilermakers. One thing I noticed in the post-game pressers after Gardner-Webb was that the players looked straight up embarrassed. As bad as the loss was for the teams resume, it could lite a fire under the team and help motivate them heading forward.
Of course this could also be the beginning of another collapse of a stretch like we saw to close the season last year. Coming into 2014-15 I figured we'd see enough progress to justify retaining Matt Painter for at least one more season, but I'm starting to think that unless we finish dead last we'll see him back in West Lafayette for at least another season anyway. When Painter signed his contract extension it also made it so that if the school decides to fire him they'll owe him his remaining contract in full, meaning if Purdue wants to fire him this spring they'll have to pay him well over $9 million to do so. If the team falters down the stretch it'd likely take Morgan Burke having a surefire replacement on board to force Painter out. So like it or not, Painter is going to be the guy going forward for at least the next year or two. Hopefully we can finally see a return to form.