On February 24th in 2010 the Boilermakers entered their matchup against Minnesota with a 23-3 record and a top five ranking. The team was on pace to possibly jump up to first in the rankings and was angling itself towards a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, looking like a Final Four team easily. Then star forward Robbie Hummel went down with a knee injury and Purdue was later bounced in the Sweet 16 by the eventual champions in Duke. Even with the unfortunate ending to a promising season, the Boilermaker faithful had the next season to look forward to...until the same injury happened once again to Purdue's star forward. Flash forward to 2012 and the ending to Hummel's career, a harrowing loss in an upset bid gone wrong against Kansas in an entirely winnable game.
That disappointing loss would be the last time the Boilermakers played in the NCAA Tournament, missing the big dance the last two seasons. Now after a collapse down the stretch in 2014 and some roster turnover, many fans across the fan base have serious doubts about Purdue's chances to climb back into contention in 2014-15 and the hot seat for Painter has been warming up across the fan base. Unfortunately while there's plenty of room for optimism in West Lafayette, there's just as much room for pessimism and Purdue's toxic at times fan base has done little to make the situation easy, especially for Matt Painter and company while they try to fix the program from the mess it's gotten itself into.
One of the biggest overlying issues surrounding Purdue's next season will be the talk about if Painter is on the hot seat or not, if it's warranted (or not) and if it's just the fan base blowing smoke or if athletic director Morgan Burke is starting to buy into it. What's interesting is Purdue's recent success has essentially crafted a fan base unwilling to accept anything else. There's logic to this chain of thought, but let's not forget that prior to Painter's tenure the Purdue program wasn't exactly setting the world on fire. While legendary coach Gene Keady had a storied career as coach here, his last five seasons in West Lafayette resulted in only once NCAA appearance and never topped 19 wins in a season. Compared to Painter, who had a six season NCAA Tournament streak and at least 22 wins in every one of those seasons. He won the Big Ten coach of the year award three different times and arguably his best team was hindered by a decimating knee injury to the teams leader and best player in Robbie Hummel in back to back seasons.
Another rallying point across the group of people calling for the firing of Painter is the poor recruiting, commonly citing that he got "lucky" with the Baby Boilers. While it's hard to defend the drop in recruiting in the seasons immediately following, it is relatively unfair and foolish to essentially hold it against Painter for bringing in such a talented recruiting class. Regardless, the recruiting has seen significant improvement the last several seasons and has been mainly hindered by inexperience and a lack of leadership from the upperclassmen that were apart of Painter's prior, weaker recruiting classes. Or in other words, the time is now for Painter to prove his worth and as long as the team doesn't crash and burn in 2014-15 then there's little to back the firing of Painter, even if the team just misses the big dance. Of course for a fan base that once called for the firing of Joe Tiller, a man who returned a traditionally inept football program back to relevance, I have my doubts that the fan base will continue to be patient.
So besides the need for the Purdue faithful needing to remain patient on the issue, just what does Purdue need to do to improve and return to their prior success under Painter? Well, if you look back at Painter's best teams here there was usually a high level of discipline. Or in other words, his teams didn't commit turnovers, they didn't struggle with shot selection, they hustled on both sides of the ball and put in 100% effort on the defensive side of things. Hard workers like Chris Kramer and Lewis Jackson made hustle plays on both sides of the ball and Purdue's stand out Baby Boilers played together as a team and refrained from being selfish out on the court.
This style of play has started to go the way of the buffalo the last few seasons, with guards Ronnie and Terone Johnson commonly just putting their head down and trying to force off-center leaners and contested layups. Time and time again both of the brothers seemed to be playing 2 on 5, ignoring everyone else on the court. Without any form of discipline from the teams primary ball handlers Purdue was already at a disadvantage, significantly increased by a team that struggled from outside and rarely played together as a team. Mix in a lack of leadership and a reported toxic locker room behind the scenes and the team played a selfish brand of basketball that rarely works, especially when your selfish players aren't anywhere near as talented to completely take over a team.
The good thing about this, though, is Purdue has more or less has purged the roster of the players not buying into the program and Painter's style of play. The belief is that the players left remaining and Painter's recent recruiting efforts has started to piece together a team of hard working individuals willing to listen and buy in, alone making a considerable difference from the team we've seen the last two seasons. One has to wonder, though, if the pressure for Painter to improve his recruiting led him to go after more guys with potential character issues, hoping talent would prevail. Regardless, Painter's recent failures have been noted, approached and (hopefully) fixed and the team will look to get back to basics once again this fall.
Just having a program that has bought into Painter's system will provide a significant boost. However, there are two major areas of concern as Purdue will need to see considerable improvement in these areas if they want to contend in the Big Ten and get back to relevancy. These two areas are also unfortunately the two main aspects of the game: shooting and defense. Luckily defense can be greatly influenced by discipline, effort and flat out hustle. Few people would consider someone like Chris Kramer to be the most athletic guy in the Big Ten, yet simply putting in the hustle and knowing what to do allowed him to become one of the top defenders on the team. With a roster of guys starting to come around, I'd imagine we'd finally see a more traditional defense on par with Painter's earlier teams.
So that leaves us with the biggest elephant in the room...shooting. First off, I've detailed several times the issues with having volume shooters that are inefficient at converting their shots. With the Johnson brothers being the two guys most likely to take the shots for Purdue, their inability to convert was considerably detrimental to the offense. Even more so as their selfishness often led to neglecting center A.J. Hammons and everyone else on the court. Simply playing more selflessly, spreading the ball around and actually moving will create opportunities for better shots that are easier to convert. The team has seen some flashes of offensive ability, especially in Kendall Stephens, they just need to work on cutting out poor shots and creating more open looks. The team last year was often lazy, standing around and then allowing Terone or Ronnie to just dribble around and force up a shot. That didn't work then and it won't work now, but the team should hopefully be past this. Of course there's the question of who will run the point next season, but that's for a little bit closer to the season.
At times I feel like even with all the dysfunction and problems, if the Boilers simply had a perimeter attack they could have been fine. The teams biggest problem the last two seasons has been scoring and the teams streaky performances has cost them numerous games that were winnable and has quickly dropped them out of contention in plenty of other games. The team finally to some extent found a shooter in Kendall Stephens, they just need to coach him up and hope his experience will help him work on his itchy trigger finger. The team will still need more guys to help from outside, so the success from the 2014 recruiting class here will more or less make or break Purdue's upcoming season. Interestingly enough Painter has struggled bringing in shooters, but if the team finally gets it going from the floor then it'll only make things easier down low for star A.J. Hammons and incoming freshmen Isaac Haas and Jacquil Taylor.
So in the end, what does Purdue need to do next season to improve on these past two seasons? The answer is simple, they need a group of guys to come together, buy into the system and play basketball as a team instead of five individual guys all doing their own thing. They need to keep moving off the ball on offense and keep the ball moving, finding ways to create open looks and easy baskets inside. And most importantly, they need a fan base and support cast that won't wave the white flag and turn on the team at the first signs of adversity like we saw last season, with the programs support at a considerably shameful low this past season.