The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.
The Purdue Boilermakers were projected to be one of the worst teams in the conference heading into last season. At that point, many in the media were starting to openly question head coach Matt Painter and wonder whether he was the right guy to lead the Boilermakers. After a mixed start to the season featuring some big wins and rough losses, the doubters began to circle. However, Purdue responded with a great run in conference play to not only get back to the NCAA Tournament, but also to the top portion of the standings in the conference.
As such, expectations and hopes are much different for Purdue entering this season. Instead of wondering about things that could go wrong, fans are wondering about how much could go right. Much of last year's roster returns and if things do go right, it could set up for a special run in West Lafayette. Head coach Matt Painter boasts an overall record of 212-124 (.631) with the program and will look to build on that this year.
Of course, everything isn't always as easy as it seems on paper. Even with the team's incredible rise during Big Ten play, the Boilermakers were probably closer to a bubble team than a true Big Ten title contender last season. Along with that, the loss of Jon Octeus and spacing issues will present real challenges to Purdue this season. If the Boilermakers are ultimately going to live up to expectations, finding an answer to these questions is essential.
The good news is that with the return of so many talented players, there is plenty to feel confident about this year. The combination of Isaac Haas, AJ Hammons, and incoming freshman Caleb Swanigan has the potential to be the nation's best frontcourt and other players like Rapheal Davis and Kendall Stephens could also be set for breakout years. Regardless of how good Purdue was last year or "fit" concerns, there is talent on the roster.
Overall, this is an extremely talented Purdue team that should be good enough to compete in the Big Ten and earn a solid seed to this year's NCAA Tournament. Overcoming "fit" issues and showing improvement from last year will be essential, but it should be another successful year for Purdue.
With that, let's take a look at the Boilermakers.
BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast
Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Purdue Boilermakers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Boilermakers featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails breaking down Purdue's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.
1. 2014-15 Season Performance
- Record: 21-13 (12-6)
- KenPom Team Rating: #48
- RPI Rating: #55
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament
Last season was really the tale of two halves for Purdue. The Boilermakers started with a mixed performance in non-conference play that saw both good wins and bad losses, but followed that up with a surprising run in Big Ten play where the Boilermakers actually tied for third in the conference standings. That combination ultimately led to the program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012.
By far, the most interesting aspect about last season was the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic for the Boilermakers. The team finished with a 12-6 record in a really tough conference, but also lost to Gardner-Webb and North Florida at home in non-conference play, was just No. 48 nationally in KenPom rating, and was just a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament. This team was somewhere between a top-end Big Ten team and a bubble team. Unfortunately, figuring out where Purdue lied on that spectrum is easier said that done.
In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote about Purdue:
Purdue's performance during the 2014-15 season easily exceeded preseason and midseason expectations. Though they may have relied on some scheduling breaks and some underachieving early in the year to shape their narrative, it was still a really nice season that included a bid to the NCAA Tournament and some solid wins for a program trying to get back on track.
. . .
Still, even with the relatively consistent play for the second half of the season, it's hard not to notice the terrible losses early on, the very manageable Big Ten slate, and the inability to notch major wins late in the year as concerns. Purdue scored some nice wins against teams like Indiana, North Carolina State, and Ohio State, but these were middling NCAA Tournament teams and not exactly the nation's elite.
One also has to step back and put the midseason turnaround in perspective. It is certainly notable, but how much credit does a term deserve for correcting its own mistakes? At the end of the day, a season has to be viewed in its entirety and Purdue put together a good, but not great year.
When everything is added up, I truly believe the statement above fits last year's Purdue's team. It was a good team, but not a great one. The skeptics have to recognize that the Boilermakers did go 12-6 in Big Ten play and got some key non-conference wins, but the optimists also have to recognize that there's a reason Purdue was not seeded that highly in the NCAA Tournament as well. Again, a good, but not great team.
This distinction between being a good and a great team is particularly important to make because Purdue is returning so much from last year's team. As such, one's opinion on Purdue's team last year will massively shape expectations for this season. In short, depending on where someone falls on that spectrum in their view of Purdue will massively shape how they view the Boilermakers this season.
Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over BYU, Missouri, and North Carolina State, a season sweep over arch-rival Indiana, and wins over Iowa and Ohio State. Low points of the season included upset losses to Gardner-Webb and North Florida at home and road losses to Illinois and Minnesota in conference play.
Individual statistical leaders were Rapheal Davis, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, AJ Hammons, and Jon Octeus. Davis led the team in minutes. Edwards led the team in assists. Haas led the team in usage. Hammons led the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Octeus led the team in steals and total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
Since the start of last season, Purdue has lost a total of four players for various reasons. These players were Neal Beshears, Anfernee Brown, Jon Octeus, and Bryson Scott. Two of these players graduated, one transferred, and one left the team. Of these losses, the only major departure comes from Octeus. In fact, none of the other three departures even played 20 percent of the team's overall minutes last year.
Though most focused on Purdue's big men last season, Octeus was actually a major contributor to the Boilermakers. In fact, he led Purdue's entire roster in overall win shares last year. Admittedly, this statistic is a bit misleading because AJ Hammons played reduced minutes to get Isaac Haas on the floor. Still though, to lead an NCAA Tournament team in overall win shares is nothing to overlook.
The biggest boost that Octeus brought to the Boilermakers last season was in his ability to create inside. Not only was he incredibly efficient inside, but he also got opponents to foul consistently as well. Octeus shot 52.7 percent from two point range, had an effective field goal percentage of 52.9, and was second on the team in free throw rate. Having a player in the backcourt and on the wing that could create was huge for Purdue last year.
Along with this, Octeus was a decent rebounder for his size, led the team in steals, and was one of the team's better passers. He wasn't a great outside shooter, but he did sit at 33.3 percent from long range and did all of this while not eating up a ton of possessions. Overall, he was an efficient player that was really good inside the arc.
Purdue's other departures come from Beshears, Brown, and Scott. The only significant departure of these three is Scott, considering that Beshears and Brown combined for 11 minutes total last year. Scott was a bench player that saw his minutes gradually decrease last season. He was a decent passer and free throw shooter, but really didn't do much else for Purdue last season.
The tricky thing about losing Octeus is understanding his importance for Purdue's roster. Though Octeus was not a great shooter, he was easily the team's best backcourt player at making plays inside. He also did a lot of little things that add up over the course of a game like on the boards and in the passing game. Octeus didn't provide a magic fix to Purdue's issues, but he was a really nice fit in the lineup, which is going to make finding his replacement that much more difficult this year.
Overall, Purdue is not losing a ton this offseason. The loss of Octeus cannot be overlooked and Scott did see some bench minutes last season, but when a team loses just one significant player during the offseason, that has to be considered to be a pretty good break. Although finding a replacement for Octeus will be far from an easy task, this was not a roster taking too many hits this offseason.
3. New Additions
This season, the Boilermakers are adding three new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Ryan Cline, Caleb Swanigan, and Grant Weatherford. Swanigan is rated as a 5-star and both Cline and Weatherford are 3-star prospects according to 247Sports. Weatherford is a point guard, Cline is a shooting guard, and Swanigan is either a power forward or a center.
Undoubtedly, the prospect receiving the most attention is Swanigan. He is not only the top rated prospect in the recruiting class, but he's actually the highest rated recruit that Matt Painter has landed since taking over at Purdue before the 2005-06 season. He is a massive prospect that is so highly regarded due to his athleticism, physicality, and his excellent footwork. Swanigan is virtually a guarantee to see major minutes and should be the frontrunner to start at power forward for the Boilermakers.
Along with Swanigan, both Cline and Weatherford are considered to be solid prospects who have the potential to get into the rotation if they play well this year. Cline is regarded as an excellent outside shooter and is expected to have some role in that capacity, especially considering Purdue's shooting struggles last season. Weatherford will join a backcourt with plenty of options, but with Purdue's questions are point guard, could also earn some early minutes.
Along with the recruiting additions, Purdue will be adding a transfer in Johnny Hill from the University of Texas Arlington. He is a guard that primarily plays at point guard. The good news is that he will be immediately eligible since he enters the program as a graduate transfer.
The Boilermakers should have an interesting dynamic with Hill this season. He brings a lot of experience to the table and comes in at perhaps the biggest area of need for Purdue, but has also never put up huge numbers himself. Over last season, he averaged 10.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, but also struggled with 3.1 turnovers per game, had an offensive rating of just 94.9, and shot just 25 percent from three point range. Though Hill should be a quality bench player, asking for too much more might be a stretch.
Although Purdue probably only has one massive addition in this group (Swanigan), this is a class that should help fill the team's depth in the short-term and for the future. Hill and Swanigan are both expected to be used heavily in this year's rotation and Cline and Weatherford are both players that could really carve out roles as well. However, the important thing to remember is that with Purdue's returners, this is group that doesn't have to make a huge impact immediately for the Boilermakers to be a solid team.
4. Team Strengths
With so much talent, the Boilermakers are certainly going to have some areas of strength this season. Particularly, due to the team's stacked frontcourt, look for Purdue to remain as one of the better interior defensive teams and one of the best rebounding teams in the conference.
Purdue was certainly far from perfect last year, but one area where it was great was in the team's ability to play quality interior defense. The Boilermakers ranked No. 30 nationally in defensive block rate and No. 13 nationally in defensive two point percentage. Even if opponents got inside, they were not scoring consistently.
The biggest reason for this was AJ Hammons. He was an absolute monster inside and around the rim. In fact, he led the entire Big Ten in defensive block rate and did so by a pretty big margin. Add in players like Vince Edwards and Kendall Stephens and the Boilermakers were a great team at blocking shots.
What's even more significant is that now that Purdue can bring Caleb Swanigan in at power forward, the Boilermakers may become an even better team at blocking shots. That's because the lineup is going to be even bigger and Vince Edwards will likely be sliding down to small forward. Essentially, Purdue is replacing a 6'4" guard in the lineup with a 6'9" athletic big man. This is going to be a nasty defense.
The other area that should be particularly strong for Purdue is on the boards. The lineup adjustments this season should also help here for the same reasons as listed above. Jon Octeus did a lot for Purdue last season, but he was not an oustanding rebounder. Now, he'll be replaced with Swanigan, which should boost Purdue's already great offensive rebounding.
Just think, with Purdue's anticipated lineup this season, Edwards is going to be playing at small forward. Over last season, Edwards actually finished at No. 15 in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding rate overall. Essentially, one of the Big Ten's better rebounders is going to be playing on the wing, in addition to AJ Hammons, Isaac Haas, and Swanigan upfront. This team could legitimately be one of the nation's best on the offensive boards.
Purdue will have its question marks for this season, especially with some offseason losses, but this is going to be a physical team defensively that can punish opponents on the boards. The Boilermakers were already good in both areas last season and with the addition of Swanigan, could be absolutely elite this year.
5. Team Weaknesses
Despite Purdue's impressive talent, depth, and stacked frontcourt, the Boilermakers are also set to have some clear weaknesses heading into this season. Some of the biggest anticipated challenges for Purdue will be finding consistent shooting from the perimeter and quality passing on offense.
There really isn't much debating whether the Boilermakers were a good perimeter shooting team last season. After all, Purdue finished at No. 238 nationally in three point percentage and just No. 270 in percentage of team points off three point field goals. All told, the only legitimate deep threat was Kendall Stephens. Players like Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias weren't terrible, but neither was great either.
Along with this, though frontcourts aren't normally expected to be great three point shooting units, the Boilermakers literally had no three point shooting contributions there. Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons combined to go just 0-7 from long range on the year. Though Swanigan is set to join the group and is expected to be a better shooter than Haas and Hammons, he's far from a lights out shooter.
The Boilermakers had success last season despite being an underwhelming three point shooting team, but with the addition of Swanigan to the lineup, things could get even more challenging. Unless a player like Edwards can improve or Swanigan is better than expected at shooting, spacing is going to be a major concern. Teams will be able to play off the guards with the exception of Stephens and provide extra help inside, making it even tougher for the frontcourt.
Along with the shooting concerns, Purdue is also going to have some major questions about the team's ball control and its passing this season. The return of players like Edwards and Stephens should help here, but the Boilermakers struggled with turnovers last season and with the loss of Octeus, it could get even more challenging this year.
A player like Swanigan could help here, but avoiding turnovers will be a major concern this season. Along with this, considering that point guard transfer Johnny Hill struggled with turnovers at UT Arlington during his career, he may not be a great fix here either.
Although neither of these issues will determine Purdue's season alone, these are major concerns heading into the year. The Boilermakers are set to have great defense and exceptional rebounding, but if the team can't find space or hold onto the ball offensively, it could really hold the team back this season.
6. Top Player
Heading into last season, the clear frontrunner to be the team's best player was AJ Hammons. He was a proven option upfront and had an incredible amount of raw talent. There were questions from critics about whether Hammons had the effort and desire to reach his full potential, but there wasn't much doubt that he had the team's best skillset. For the most part, Hammons was the team's best player last year and when he announced he would be returning, he maintained his status. He also came in at #4 in the BTPowerhouse preseason Big Ten player rankings.
Although there were several really good players on Purdue's roster last year, Hammons was pretty easily the team's best minute-by minute contributor. He was an absolutely dominant defender inside, he was outstanding on the boards, and also was really efficient offensively. Hammons was not a great outside shooter and could have been better from the free throw line, but otherwise, he was one of the better players in the conference and the country.
It's hard to imagine anyone else being Purdue's best player this season outside of Hammons, but if somebody does challenge him for this spot, it is likely to be either Vince Edwards or incoming freshman Caleb Swanigan. One of the more underrated players for Purdue last season was Edwards and with another year of development, he could really be the x-factor to take the Boilermakers to the next level. Swanigan is obviously somewhat unknown since he has yet to play a minute for Purdue, but his raw talent indicates he will be one of Purdue's better players this year.
Though the Boilermakers appear to have a few players set for breakout years this season, the player who should be the frontrunner coming in is AJ Hammons. His defensive capabilities should have him in the running to be the Big Ten's best big man this season and even contend for Big Ten Player of the Year.
7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/8 - Northwestern Ohio (Exhibition)
- 11/13 - North Carolina A&T
- 11/15 - Vermont
- 11/18 - Incarnate Word
- 11/21 - Old Dominion (Uncasville, Connecticut)
- 11/22 - Florida/Saint Joseph's (Uncasville, Connecticut)
- 11/28 - Lehigh
- 12/1 - at Pittsburgh
- 12/5 - New Mexico
- 12/7 - IUPUI
- 12/9 - Howard
- 12/12 - Youngstown State
- 12/19 - Butler (Indianapolis, Indiana)
- 12/22 - Vanderbilt
- 12/29 - at Wisconsin
- 1/2 - Iowa
- 1/7 - Michigan
- 1/10 - at Illinois
- 1/13 - Penn State
- 1/18 - at Rutgers
- 1/21 - Ohio State
- 1/24 - at Iowa
- 1/27 - at Minnesota
- 1/30 - Nebraska
- 2/6 - at Maryland
- 2/9 - Michigan State
- 2/13 - at Michigan
- 2/16 - Northwestern
- 2/20 - at Indiana
- 2/27 - Maryland
- 3/1 - at Nebraska
- 3/(5/6) - Wisconsin
Purdue has set itself up for what appears to be a pretty difficult non-conference slate. Though the schedule lacks a name that will pop out like a Duke or Kentucky, there are plenty of tough opponents, including some difficult games away from home. All told, the Boilermakers will have to play very well to avoid a few non-conference losses.
The significant games on this non-conference schedule include the road game at Pittsburgh, the neutral site games with Butler and either Florida or Saint Joseph's, and the home games against New Mexico and Vanderbilt. Despite none of these games appearing to be guaranteed losses, none of the matchups are going to be easy wins.
To start, Butler, Pittsburgh, and Vanderbilt are all top 30 teams on KenPom and only the game against Vanderbilt comes at home. Maybe those teams are closer to the bottom of the top 30 than the top, but those are still all really challenging games, especially Pittsburgh on the road. Along with that, Purdue will likely get Florida and another quality program in New Mexico for two tricky games. Finally, with fringe top 100 teams like Lehigh, Old Dominion, and Vermont, there aren't going to be many easy nights.
Despite these challenges, Purdue still has a pretty good shot at a 10-3 or better record in non-conference play. After all, Purdue is set to be a pretty good team itself and only has one true road game. Most likely, expect the Boilermakers to come in around 11-2 or 12-1 when all is said and done.
Of course, Purdue's reward for this challenging non-conference schedule will be an absolutely brutal Big Ten schedule. In total, the Boilermakers will have 14 of 18 conference games against top 100 KenPom teams and an absolutely brutal close to Big Ten play with six of eight games against top 25 KenPom teams. Plus, considering that Purdue plays Maryland twice in the final eight games and the Terps are likely underrated by KenPom, the stat is more likely to be around six of eight games against top 20 KenPom teams.
Even with these challenges, the Boilermakers do have some hope. With a double-play against Nebraska, matchups against Iowa, Ohio State, Northwestern, and Penn State at home, and a matchup with Rutgers, there's a pretty clear path to seven conference wins without even beating a top end team. Road games against Illinois and Minnesota are also manageable and its hard not to think Purdue takes at least one or two of the home games against Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin.
As mentioned, this conference schedule is going to be very difficult for Purdue, but with Purdue's returning talent and at least a decent hunk of winnable games, look for somewhere in the 9 to 13 range. Though that may sound disappointing, with so much tough matchups at home and on the road, it's pretty realistic.
Overall, this is a very challenging schedule for Purdue. The non-conference slate features several top end teams with plenty of decent teams and Big Ten play looks brutal. The Boilermakers are a good enough team to overcome these challenges, but the team will have to earn just about every win.
8. Projected Startling Lineup
PG: Dakota Mathias (So.) - 60%
SG: Kendall Stephens (Jr.) - 75%
SF: Vince Edwards (So.) - 90%
PF: Caleb Swanigan (Fr.) - 85%
C: AJ Hammons (Sr.) - 95%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
The backcourt will likely compose the most interesting and meaningful positional battles for Purdue. At point guard, the position is most likely going to come down to returning sophomore Dakota Mathias and UT Arlington transfer Johnny Hill. As mentioned earlier, Hill was pretty underwhelming at his previous stop and should be projected for the bench. However, if Mathias is struggling, look for Hill to grab the job. Two other players to watch here will be incoming freshman Grant Weatherford and sophomore PJ Thompson. Expect a position by committee.
Alongside the point, the Boilermakers have a much better idea on who will start and take the majority of minutes. The frontrunner here is Kendall Stephens. He was pretty easily the team's best three point shooter last year and considering that Purdue needs shooting, it's hard to imagine Stephens not getting a spot in the lineup. He could be the catalyst to a great season for Purdue and should see major minutes. Rapheal Davis and freshman Ryan Cline could also be factors here and on the wing.
On the wing, the clear option to start at small forward should be Vince Edwards. He was a major contributor last season and could be in position to have a breakout season, especially if he can improve from long range. Behind him, expect Davis and Stephens to grab minutes when Purdue wants to play small. This position should move around between a few players, but look for Edwards to get the minutes during the important segments this year.
At power forward, the frontrunner to grab the spot will be 5-star freshman Caleb Swanigan. His combination of athleticism and size should make him a matchup problem for opponents. Purdue's best lineup should feature Swanigan at power forward and the question will be whether he's good enough to hold down the spot. Spacing could also be an issue and seeing how the shooting develops could determine Swanigan's time here.
Finally, at center, AJ Hammons is the clear player who will grab the starting role. He should be Purdue's best player this season and should get major minutes as a result. Behind him, sophomore Isaac Haas should get most of the time, but Swanigan is also a player that can move over if needed. Nonetheless, this is going to be a position that revolves around Hammons and Haas.
Purdue actually has a good hunk of proven starters and quality backups at most of the positions. The key thing to watch will be the development of the backcourt. The backcourt will need to have the shooting to allow Swanigan to play at power forward. Along with this, there are a lot of diverse options in Davis, Edwards, Stephens, and Swanigan that can play multiple positions, so breaking down who gets minutes where will be a big challenge for Painter.
Nonetheless, if Purdue can figure out where to set a lineup and when to use it, it should be stacked with talent and a deep bench. Point guard is easily the weakest position, but the frontcourt is absolutely loaded and the wing has plenty of quality options as well. This is a lineup that is going to give a lot of opponents problems this year.
9. Team Perspective From Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails
"Expectations are as high as they have been in West Lafayette since the Baby Boilers were playing. Caleb Swanigan has been very impressive in the preseason scrimmages and a couple of surprise point guard candidates in Dakota Mathias and Rapheal Davis have done well in distributing the ball. This team looks like it is coming together very well with some improved shooting and Vince Edwards looks ready to make a Leap.
So what is the goal? Just making the NCAA Tournament seems pretty much a given for a team in the preseason top 25. It is time to challenge for a Big Ten title. That's going to be difficult, but it never is easy. Rarely do you see a team crush skulls on their way to the title like Wisconsin last year. It is going to be a war as always with Maryland and Michigan State as my favorites, but Purdue, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan have enough talent to beat anyone on a given night. They all can challenge.
I think Purdue can repeat its top 4 finish in the league and I would love to see them reach the second weekend of March. This is going to be a deep team at almost every position except the point. Johnny Hill and P.J. Thompson will get the first shot at that, but don't be surprised if you see Mathias, Davis, and even freshman Ryan Cline play it a little by committee like Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant did back in the day, and Purdue wasn't exactly awful then." - Travis Miller.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Not only is this set to be one of Purdue's most talented rosters in years, but this is pretty easily one of the more talented rosters in the Big Ten. The challenge will be assessing that talent, getting it to fit together, and addressing the weaknesses at point guard. If the Boilermakers can figure those issues out, this team has enough talent to compete in the Big Ten and nationally.
Purdue's team will start with the frontcourt this year. The group is absolutely loaded with AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas and is now adding a 5-star prospect that is set to play at power forward. With these three players, one would be challenged to find many frontcourts that are even comparable. Then, when one adds in quality wing and backcourt options like Rapheal Davis, Vince Edwards, and Kendall Stephens, there's a lot to work with for the Boilermakers.
Unfortunately, despite all that talent, there are two areas that could hold this team back. To start, the point guard position has no players who have proven they can play at a high level. There are plenty of options at point guard like Johnny Hill and Dakota Mathias, but nothing to indicate this position will play well. Along with this, the Boilermakers were a very bad perimeter shooting team last year and could exacerbate this issue by playing another big man in the lineup this season. If Purdue can't find answers to these issues, all that talent could mean little.
This Purdue team should be more talented and deeper than last year's team. However, with shooting issues, massive question marks at point guard, and a much tougher schedule, the program's progress will likely be held back this season. If all goes right, this could be a great team, but because of those factors, look for a solid, but not great finish.