The beginning of the 2013-14 season saw a Purdue squad showing quite a bit of optimism and hopes of a return to the NCAA Tournament after a one year absence. While inconsistency and shooting issues derailed the previous season, Purdue returned almost everyone of value and added another solid recruiting class. For a team that struggled from outside, the addition of freshmen Kendall Stephens and a pair of senior transfers looked to help shore up Purdue's inability to spread the floor. All and all, the team was looking like at least a NIT squad with a reasonable chance to climb back to the big dance, especially with a manageable schedule.
Well things didn't exactly pan out for the Boilermakers. After a promising enough start out of conference, the team quickly faded throughout conference play and ultimately missed the postseason entirely, forgoing the opportunity to play in the CBI for a second year in a row. Now the Boilermakers will try to rebuild and give it another go next fall, but for now we'll take a look at what went right and what went wrong for the Boilers this past season.
What Went Right for the Boilermakers
Passable non-conference start to the season, ability to win close games
It wasn't perfect and it wasn't pretty, but it was passable. Starting off at 10-3 Purdue put themselves in shape to at least contend for a NCAA bid if they could take care of business in conference play. That was a nice turn around from last season where they buried themselves into a hole straight from the get go. Of course there were some troublesome moments, mainly the second half of the Washington State game and the inconsistency seen during the Butler outing, but the team looked passable versus Oklahoma State and was able to knock off West Virginia on the road. While close wins versus teams like Northern Kentucky and Rider weren't exactly thrilling, these were games that required clutch plays down the stretch and were games Purdue would have lost last season. Of course the teams ability to win close early faded quickly once Big Ten play came around.
Ending the losing streak versus Indiana
Coming into the season the Boilermakers had lost four straight to Indiana. Not only that, but all of those losses were by double digits. So in a down season one of the few bright spots was the absolute destruction and burial of the Hoosiers, with the Boilermakers taking them out to the woodshed in what was the most impressive game of the season for Purdue. The game also might have been part of the reason Indiana missed the NIT.
The rise of A.J. Hammons
A.J. Hammons freshman season was disappointing and his effort levels where completely sporadic, leading to Sandi Marcius stealing minutes down the stretch. His sophomore season wasn't perfect but it was a marked improvement. While Hammons seemed to be going through the motions last season, this year saw Hammons put in considerably more effort every night. He still has issues guarding the screen away from the bucket and has some offensive issues to work on (puts the ball down when it's not necessary, shuffles his feet, needs to demand the ball more), but it was an improvement overall. We saw Hammons become a center capable of dominating on defense, as well as occasionally taking it to opponents on the offensive side of things. He's going to eat up rebounds and pick up blocks every night, now he just needs to be a bit more assertive on offense and cut down on unnecessary fouls. It was just announced today that Hammons will return for his junior season. If he can match this years improvement then we should be in for quite the season next year for the seven footer.
A Fresh Start in 2014
After what was essentially a purging of the roster, Purdue looks to finally be done with all of the players that refused to buy into the program and what Painter teaches. If that's the case the effort level and mental errors should come back to normal levels and there will be room for plenty of improvement. We already saw Hammons get it together and his return should solidify the team's frontcourt. Also returning will be wing Kendall Stephens, looking to bulk up a little and improve his game past being just a three point shooter. He has the ability to be a dangerous weapon and as he matures and cuts down on shooting impulsively he should see a considerable upswing to his production. Also, for a team largely void of leadership, Rapheal Davis looks ready to take the lead here as he wants to get the team back to where it used to be under Painter.
The team will also add a five man recruiting class including a well mixed set of prospects. 7'2 center Isaac Haas could add a viable backup to Hammons while 6'9 Jacquil Taylor has a build / style in the vein of former Purdue great JaJuan Johnson. Vince Edwards has been Painter's guy for quite some time and will finally be here, same for Dakota Mathias, an Ohio native that Painter has raved about. The biggest question about the team next season is who will run the point and if Bryson Scott will have to play out of position once again. The hope here is that P.J. Thompson, a late addition to the class, will help take care of business for the Boilermakers. All in all it looks like a fresh start with plenty of talent spread around for a Purdue team looking to bounce back after a rough two seasons.
What Went Wrong for the Boilermakers
Team dysfunction, lack of effort and character issues
This has been detailed all over the Purdue blogosphere and twitterverse, but the Boilermakers had some serious issues with character and dysfunction at the team level. Time and time again we saw the Boilermakers commit the same mental errors and make the same brash, dumb decisions. And time and time again we saw Painter grow frustrated to the point where he looked absolutely fed up by the end of the season. These weren't issues being neglected by the coaching staff, rather issues the players cared little about correcting. As it became clear, Purdue's locker room included several characters that simply didn't want to listen, didn't want to be coached and just wanted to do their own thing and be done with it. It didn't work last season and it didn't work this season, but Painter's hand was forced due to the unevenness of the roster. Now with a slew of transfers the last few seasons and the latest departure of Ronnie Johnson and Painter believes the overall atmosphere of the locker room should do a 180.
Purdue's backcourt was a sore part this season once again, with far too many issues to count or even discuss here. First we had Terone and Ronnie Johnson, two volume shooters that took a majority of Purdue's shots...and only converted on about 41% of them. Terone saw marked improve from beyond the arc, but both were also terrible from the charity stripe, cancelling out any advantage they had from being able to get to the line at will. Then you had Ronnie Johnson, a point guard who didn't seem to like passing the ball around. His end of the year stats more or less backed this, only totaling 117 assists compared to 70 turnovers. This doesn't even take into consideration the fact that he really only focused in on his brother Terone or that the duo seemed to like playing 2 on 5 on most possessions. Mix that with Bryson Scott's horrendous attempt at running the point as a back-up (he's more of a shooting guard and was playing out of position), Sterling Carter's inability to get it going from three (the reason he was brought in) and Kendall Stephens fire-at-will mentality...and you had a backcourt that was a liability on most nights. Even more when you realized not one player here seemed capable of feeding Hammons down low, negating one of the teams best offensive weapons.
Shooting (especially free throws)
Not much needs to be said here. The team shot 42.7% from the field, putting them 259th in the nation. They shot 32.7% from three, placing them 257th in the nation. Their free throw percentage of 67.1% was good enough for 267th.
As bad as Purdue finished the season they didn't have as many complete 'duds' as you'd imagine. The reality is they lost numerous conference games, including one late in the season to Michigan, where they were a competitive team capable of winning throughout most of the game (and in some cases looked like the better team for a decent amount of the night). The problem? Very, very rarely did Purdue come out and play a full 40 minutes. Versus superior competition this led to the team routinely losing winnable games. No, really, eleven of the Boilermakers losses were by single digits. Two of those double digit losses include an Oklahoma State game where they cut a 20+ deficit down to 4 with two minutes left and another was the Ohio State game that was close down the stretch before they stopped scoring over the last eight minutes and got blown out. If Purdue could have just performed evenly and not gone through so many cold streaks offensively they would have had a considerably more enjoyable season. Look no further then the Indiana game in February, possibly the only complete game Purdue played over the last three months of the season. When this team was on they were on, they just couldn't find a way to maintain their effectiveness for the duration of an entire game.
Purdue has had their fair share of injury issues (Robbie Hummel) in the recent past and this season was no different. That being said, neither of the two main injuries that happened here derailed or effected the season in any significant way. Rather, they were more depressing like a kick to the groin while you're already laid out on the ground. Senior transfer Sterling Carter just worked his way into the starting lineup, doing so more based on his effort than actual performance, and then ended up tearing his ACL in typical fashion. Even worse was what happened to Jay Simpson, who wasn't having the best season but saw his career come to a close thanks to a rare heart condition that would threaten his life if he continued to play. Injuries happen and are part of the game, it was just a rough sight to see these guys suffer such extremely harsh endings to their basketball careers.