While Matt Painter and Purdue started off a successful career together, the last two seasons have taken a considerable turn for the worse. It shouldn't be a major surprise that the recent downturn went hand in hand with the departure of Robbie Hummel, the last of the remaining Baby Boilers. Following the 2011-12 season the Boilermakers saw a radical makeover as the teams roster was loaded with youth and inexperience. While that led to plenty of optimism and potential for the Boilers, it still meant they had to rely on plenty of fresh faces if they wanted to maintain relevancy within the conference.
Entering the 2012-13 season the Boilermakers were looking to turn to an impressive class including four star center A.J. Hammons, point guard Ronnie Johnson, small forward Rapheal Davis and three star Jay Simpson. While the lack of Hummel and the major inexperience on the roster was cause for concern, the fan base still felt good enough that they thought a tournament bid was a realistic expectation. Unfortunately that didn't pan out as A.J. Hammons had serious issues with his work ethic, Jay Simpson played ten games with a foot injury before redshirting, Rapheal Davis was commonly invisible on the court (besides maybe a game or two) and point guard Ronnie Johnson was an inefficient turnover machine that couldn't make a shot to save his life. Besides the struggling performances on the court the team played relatively lifeless, almost void of leadership all together. The end result was a losing record and no NCAA Tournament.
After the previous disappointment the Boilermakers were looking to bounce back and correct their ongoing issues. While the national scene was largely dismissive of Purdue's odds of turning the program back around, the fan base once again rallied around the team. The four man recruiting class in 2012 meant there was less immediate of a need for the 2013 class to perform, but they were still an important key to the season. Once again the freshmen struggled to make an immediate impact, with Bryson Scott (arguably the most notable recruit in the class) being forced to play as Ronnie Johnson's backup at point guard, a situation that turned into a disaster. Mix in Basil Smotherman's widely vanilla season and Kendall Stephens poor decision making with shot selection and you had a team that made almost no improvement from the previous season and suffered another disappointing end.
Now with leading scorers Terone and Ronnie Johnson departing, as well as Sterling Carter, Errick Peck, Jay Simpson and Travis Carroll, Purdue's roster will once again rely heavily on a slew of fresh faces. Even more so that Ronnie Johnson decided to transfer, leaving Bryson Scott as the only returning option at point guard. Scott's issues with the position last season means Painter will likely try to put him back at the two spot, meaning three star point guard P.J. Thompson will likely get the keys to the offense from the get go. That could be problematic as the Indiana native didn't even net an offer from Purdue until Painter was likely made aware of Johnson's impending transfer, forcing Painter's hand to offer a guard that might have not received one otherwise.
The Boilermakers issues extend past point guard as well, with the team struggling to produce on offense thanks to a roster void of shooters besides Kendall Stephens. This of course will lead to an immediate reliance on Dakota Mathias and Vince Edwards, two more freshmen that will be forced to produce from the very beginning of the season. Their ability to hit the ground running is even more important as the teams top two scorers are gone and the Boilermakers didn't have many offensive weapons outside of the Johnson brothers in the backcourt. Rounding out the 2014 class will be bigs Isaac Haas and Jacquil Taylor. While neither will need to become immediate superstars, their arrival does bode well for a Purdue team that was left extremely thin in the frontcourt after Jay Simpson's career was prematurely ended.
So where does that leave the 2014-15 Boilermakers? It puts them more or less in the same spot they've been the last two seasons. For the third season in a row Purdue will be loaded with inexperience all over the depth chart and only if their young players can take care of business will Purdue improve. There's going to be a lot of a pressure for a 5'10 three star point guard to immediately find his away around opposing Big Ten defenses. There's going to be almost as much pressure for a pair of Ohio freshmen with the hopes that they can help kickstart a stagnant offense. And of course there's going to be the hope that either Haas and Taylor will emerge as the heir apparent to A.J. Hammons, or at least offer more valuable minutes from the bench then Travis Carroll was able to produce last season.
If Purdue's freshmen can come in and play competently it's not out of the question that the team could finish around .500 in the conference find it's way back to the postseason. If the team deals with even more growing pains, though, it's going to be another repeat of the last two seasons and Matt Painter's job security will be a serious issue heading into next season. One of the major issues that became increasingly apparent last season was the relatively toxic locker room environment and lack of leadership. While the leadership issue still could have some serious questions, Painter has already liked what he's seen from his incoming class.
With Painter already praising the work ethics and high IQ of guys like Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas, he's also seen a set of players more willing to buy into the system. The Boilermakers have been no stranger to the transfer bug as players have left the program in droves for a handful of reasons (playing time, coaching issues, etc.), but it's starting to feel like Purdue has finally cleaned house and is ready to build towards the future. The only problem is that the last two seasons have created a sense of restlessness that means Painter and company will need to see immediate results or the entire program could be blown up and rebooted in a year or two with someone new in charge.
As if playing as a freshman in the Big Ten isn't a difficult enough situation, the players joining the team this season have to realize it's almost a "win now" season for Purdue. While Painter should retain his job if the team improves and still misses the NCAA Tournament, the room for error is steadily shrinking and it's almost put up or shut up time in West Lafayette. Ironically enough, Painter has commented that the one thing his team needs is to "get older." He wants experience, leadership and guys that have been there before and won't make careless mistakes. He's ultimately going to get a locker room with plenty of inexperience and a heavy reliance on fresh faces once again, the end result of his previous recruiting classes flaming out before they could make it to their junior and senior seasons. If we see that happen once again in 2014 then there's going to be some serious changes around West Lafayette in the near future.
In the fall of 2007 the Baby Boilers arrived on campus and helped launch the winningest five year stretch in Purdue history. While it's highly unlikely the five player 2014 class will be as successful as those Baby Boilers, they need to be the class that helps Purdue regain relevancy or else there's going to be major changes coming to town.