Heading into the 2014-15 season the Boilermakers were commonly predicted by most media publications as destined for the Big Ten basement. There was a bit of variation as to where they would land, but most publications saw the team as finishing 12th or 13th, likely in contention with Northwestern and Penn State for being the conference's second worst team. Losing early non-conference games to teams like North Florida and Gardner-Webb only reiterated that thought process as the Big Ten season came rolling along. Purdue looked destined for another rough season and the Matt Painter hot seat intensified as fans took to the internet to voice their dismay.
Then the Big Ten season began and things rapidly changed. Purdue only started 3-3 in conference play, but all three wins were come-from-behind affairs and the team more than held their own in close losses to Wisconsin and Maryland. Before you knew it Purdue had gone 8-1 over a nine game stretch, a streak that included three wins in a row versus ranked opponents. When everything was said and done, Purdue ended up back in the NCAA Tournament after a two year absence.
As the offseason hit there were two major questions Purdue was facing. The first was if junior A.J. Hammons would declare for the draft or return to finish his collegiate career. Thanks to the emergence of freshman Isaac Haas this past season, the loss of Hammons would have stung considerably less than in prior seasons. However, Hammons' presence inside on the defensive side of things became a critical advantage throughout the season. Simply put, Hammons was one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten and now that his offensive game has progressed nicely, he became by far one of the most improved players this past season. With Frank Kaminsky and a number of other marquee name players set to move on from the conference, Hammons very well could be primed to be one of the best players in the conference.
Of course the Boilers will still return Isaac Haas, another seven-foot plus center that gave Purdue a huge size advantage. While Haas play tapered off a bit once Big Ten play began, he helps add a ton of depth, allows Hammons to get some much needed rest and remedied foul issues that plagued Hammons in his first two seasons. If Haas can continue to develop then the duo will help anchor one of the best, if not the best, frontcourts in the conference. Then you also have to take into consideration the likes of Vince Edwards and Rapheal Davis, two major players over the last couple of months this past season.
Edwards was a bit unheralded as a recruit, but his presence was immediate as he added almost nine points, five rebounds and three assists per game. His ability to score from all spots on the court gave Purdue a much needed versatile offensive threat while helping push Purdue beyond being a team that relied almost exclusively on Hammons and three pointers like in prior seasons. While the immediate arrival of Edwards was a huge gain for Purdue, the breakout season by junior Rapheal Davis has Purdue looking forward to one more season with the guard. Davis, who won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, was suffocating on the defensive side of ball. His defense and leadership were key attributes already, but his rapidly improving offensive game late in the season gave Purdue a spark that helped launch them into the postseason.
With Hammons and Haas down low, Edwards and Davis manning the perimeter and Basil Smotherman providing a spark off the bench, there's a strong foundation set for the Boilers heading forward. The biggest question heading forward, especially now that we know Hammons is back, will be how the backcourt performs. Before getting to the biggest question mark on the board, it will be interesting to see how Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias can improve next season. The duo was Purdue's best outside shooters and could be game changers from beyond the arc. At the same time, though, both were extremely streaky shooters that never shied away from putting it up. The end result was the two players at times hurt the team almost as often as they helped it, meaning they'll either need to develop some consistency or improve on shot selection. Of course the potential is there, and it's not like either were absolutely horrendous from outside (though they did have far too many off nights).
The biggest question that will determine if Purdue can emerge towards the top of the Big Ten race (or remain in the middle of the pack) will be the point guard position. Jon Octeus was a savior last season for the Boilers, successfully running the point while becoming a massive asset on both sides of the ball. Without Octeus that means the Boilermakers have a massive void at the point, even more so with Bryson Scott transferring out of the program. Scott saw himself as more of a combo guard and never quite excelled at the point, meaning his departure isn't a massive loss, but it does limit the teams depth. P.J. Thompson was a late addition to the 2014 class, likely earning his offer after Painter knew Ronnie Johnson was set to transfer, and didn't exactly wow anyone last season. He improved a bit down the stretch, but if the point is his spot for the season then that could become a problem for Purdue. Of course Edwards, Davis and Mathias can bring the ball up the court when required, but the team would obviously benefit from a solid addition at the point.
Painter hasn't shied away from graduate transfers in the past, seeing some success from Sterling Carter and Errick Peck two years ago and a massive level of success from Octeus this past season, so it's no surprise that he's hitting the trails once again. One of the main targets right now is Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis, who was a key play for the Wildcats last season and would likely be able to start immediately. If Purdue can't land Ennis there are still several other options, including Miami guard Manu Lecomte, and let's not forget that Octeus was about as late of an addition as you could get this season.
Purdue also has three star commit Grant Weatherford, a point guard that could be called on if needed, but the team would benefit from a more known commodity. The 2015 class is a tad thin, with three star guard Ryan Cline being the other commit, likely being used as a bit of depth with the loss of Octeus and Scott. It'll also be interesting to see if Jacquil Taylor can find minutes after missing most of the season with what will likely (hopefully) end as a medical redshirt. The 6'9 forward is a bit undersized and raw, but could help eat up some minutes at the four. With Edwards and Smotherman on board, though, it'll be hard for Taylor to break through into the rotation.
So heading forward into 2015-16 and it's easy to see why there's a growing amount of optimism surrounding the program, even more so as Wisconsin is set to be decimated by roster turnover. Michigan State and Maryland will be the flashy picks, as well as Ohio State simply because Thad Matta always has a good team (even more so if D'Angelo Russell returns), but Purdue has a loaded roster ready to compete with the top teams in the conference. Everywhere on the roster, outside of the point guard position, is an abundance of depth and talent. If Purdue can find an answer for who will successfully man the point, then the skies the limit.
Just a few months ago fans wanted Painter fired and for the program to essentially go into reboot mode. Now Purdue has what is seen as one of the most talented rosters heading forward. The state of the program for Purdue is looking very promising, especially if they can land a grad transfer like Dylan Ennis. Either way, things are starting to turn around in West Lafayette.