Entering the 2014-15 season the Boilermakers were on a steady decline following the graduation of the last Baby Boiler, Robbie Hummel. After missing the tournament in back-to-back seasons and plenty of roster turnover, including the transfer of starting point guard Ronnie Johnson, there was a lot of questions surrounding the program.
The reality is stagnant recruiting likely created the hardship Purdue dealt with for those two years. After several years of underwhelming recruiting classes and several woeful misses (Patrick Bade anyone?), it seemed like Painter started targeting higher quality prospects that broke away from the Purdue mold. Instead of disciplined, hard working and tough players on the court Painter started playing underclassmen who simply did whatever they wanted, refused to buy into the system and didn't develop whatsoever. It's obvious that a number of the transfers and benchings stemmed from players refusing to adapt and it was painstakingly clear as of late that Painter made it an emphasis to target players he felt better fit for his system. That of course led to a number of hard working and disciplined freshmen who all bought into the system and have made numerous contributions throughout the season.
Of course the top addition was senior guard Jon Octeus, who emerged as a leader and a very effective point guard in his replacement of Ronnie Johnson. Just having a point guard that could distribute the ball became huge for the Boilers and helped junior A.J. Hammons finally blossom into the star everyone knew he was capable of becoming. Mix in the addition of 7'2" Isaac Haas and not only did Purdue have a size advantage over just about everyone, but they finally found an answer on how to deal with Hammons occasional problems with fouls and conditioning. Topping everything of was the emergence of Rapheal Davis and newcomer Vince Edwards, finally giving the Purdue offense life after two seasons of absolutely nothing.
When everything was said and done the 2014-15 season was definitely a roller coaster ride for the Boilers, with numerous highs and lows starting almost immediately after the season began.
Two seasons ago the Boilermakers inexplicably dropped a bunch of bad non-conference games, including one on the road to Eastern Michigan. Last season they won considerably more of these affairs but routinely struggled to overcome some dreadful opposition. So winning the first three games over a bunch of cupcakes by a combined 112 points was a nice start. Purdue followed with a trip to Maui where they would lose their opening game to Kansas State in what has become a somewhat typical Purdue game. Following an absolute nightmare of a half with far too many turnovers and absolutely nothing on the offensive glass, the Boilers got it together in the second half and made a game of it before falling by 9. Purdue would then close out the trip blowing out Missouri and edging BYU before coming home to knock off North Carolina State in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge. The beginning of the season definitely created a sense of optimism, even more so as no one realized how awful Missouri was or that Kansas State would be terrible by the end of the season.
Then things went south in a hurry. Purdue inexplicably lost a game to North Florida thanks to the Ospreys ability to hit from outside. A week later the Boilers fell to a hot shooting Vanderbilt team on the road, a loss that was more acceptable at the time. Then a solid first half paved way to a blow out loss to Notre Dame. The December stretch wasn't the end of the world, yet, for the Boilers, but it made their path to the tournament considerably more difficult. And that was before an absolutely woeful loss a couple days before Christmas to Gardner-Webb. The end result was everyone was writing off Purdue, assuming their projected bottom dwelling Big Ten finish was reality. Even worse was the fan base once again started calling for Matt Painter's head for the third season in a row, many believing this may be it.
Six games into the Big Ten season and Purdue was 3-3 and it was hard to gauge how good or bad they were going to be. On one hand the team was competitive in losses to Wisconsin and Maryland, while losing a tough road game to Illinois. On the other hand, all three of their wins required impressive comebacks, including double-digit comebacks against Michigan and Minnesota and a whole lot of luck to force overtime versus Penn State. Then something just clicked for the Boilers, winning four in a row and knocking off three ranked teams on their home court. All of a sudden Purdue was near the top of the Big Ten and getting consideration for a possible bubble spot. The Boilers did slip up unnecessarily at Minnesota, losing a close game thanks to a plethora of turnovers, but rode an 8-1 streak back into the bubble.
Purdue wouldn't be able to get over the hump, though, blowing a lead against Ohio State and losing two winnable road games against Ohio State and Michigan State. It was a familiar problem for the Boilers as the team has a tendency to be streaky far too often. Either way, the losses didn't kill Purdue's tournament odds and the Boilers came through in their regular season finale, fighting back from a dreadful start and double digit deficit on their way to essentially edging Illinois out of the tournament picture.
The biggest thing during conference play for Purdue was an emergence of leadership by several players. It would be difficult not to praise the improvement and at times dominance shown by center A.J. Hammons, but the leadership and effort shown by grad transfer Jon Octeus was just as key to Purdue's return to success. Rounding out the package was one hell of a defensive season by Rapheal Davis, complemented by a rapidly improving offense, and freshmen like Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas playing key roles throughout the season. Even guys like Basil Smotherman and Bryson Scott had big nights, with Scott being huge the night Purdue dismantled the Hoosiers on national television. Oh, and Purdue did that too. Besides blowing out Indiana in West Lafayette, the Boilers also won in Bloomington, sweeping the Hoosiers. Purdue is now riding a three game winning streak against their rival and seem to be trending in a positive direction as Tom Crean's Hoosiers spiral out of control.
At the end of the day, Purdue's up and down season was mainly 'up' throughout the Big Ten and the end result was a 12-6 conference record, good enough to tie for third in the conference. While their non-conference resume was a sore thumb, Purdue's success in the Big Ten helped paved their way to a likely NCAA bid as long as they didn't crash and burn in Chicago. At the end of the day Purdue finally found a way to once again play a tough, defensive brand of basketball that has been associated with the program for years.
The Big Ten Tournament hadn't been kind to the Boilermakers heading into this past week, with Purdue going 1-5 their last six and some ghastly (Minnesota, Michigan State, Nebraska) losses scattered throughout the years. For whatever reason the last number of seasons Purdue's offense has simply fell apart in the tournament and there was increased pressure for that to not happen this year as the Boilers were still on the bubble.
With the Boilermakers earning a double bye with the four seed, their opponent wasn't set until the day before. After Penn State knocked off Iowa it put the Boilers in an interesting position as it was an easier opponent than Iowa would have been, but at the same time a loss would be detrimental to their tournament odds. In true fashion Purdue once again rode a sizable halftime deficit against Penn State before an absolute dismantling of the Lions in the second half helped Purdue make it to the semis for the first time since 2010.
Unfortunately for Purdue that meant they drew top seeded Wisconsin, a team that had only lost in conference to Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. And naturally Purdue had a very, very good first half on their way to a 35-30 lead, followed by keeping it a game for the first half of the second half before absolutely falling apart. While the game was once 44-46, Wisconsin opened it up to blow out the Boilers in the end. The game may be a pretty accurate read on Purdue as they have a tendency to play very, very good at times, followed by stretches where they do absolutely nothing. If the Boilers could simply piece together a complete 40 minutes they'll be a tough out for anyone in the NCAA Tournament, they just have to find a way to do it. Giving Wisconsin everything they could handle for 30 minutes does show Purdue has the potential, they just need to capitalize on it going forward.
Ever since Purdue reentered the fray as an at-large team most people had them as either a 10 or a 11 seed, possibly in the play-in game as well. Well when everything was said and done the Boilermakers climbed up to a 9 seed, something that was probably a worse scenario for them. Now instead of potential landing a Gonzaga or Kansas in the second (third, sigh) round they'll face Kentucky if they can get to the weekend. That's a tough draw as any path for Purdue past the first week will ultimately include the team considered to be hands down the best program in the nation this season.
As for their opponent on Thursday, they'll draw a Cincinnati team that ended a five game winning streak when they got bounced in their first game of the AAC Tournament. Cincinnati only averages a little over 60 points per game so it looks like Purdue is set to face off in a slow, defensive and entirely physical opening day showdown with the Bearcats. The only opponents these two teams shared include Nebraska and North Carolina State, with Cincy losing to Nebraska in double overtime (only scoring 55 points in 50 minutes) and beating NCSU by 16.
The reality is Purdue got an extremely unfavorable draw with Kentucky in the next wrong, but will have a solid chance of keeping Painter's opening round winning streak alive in the NCAA Tournament. Interestingly enough you'd have to think Purdue could match up with anyone if they can get past Cincinnati and Kentucky, but the odds don't seem to be in their favor any more.