At one point during the 2014-15 season there were fans calling for Matt Painter's head. Then the unexpected happened and the team turned things around, earning a NCAA Tournament appearance that few anticipated at the beginning of the season. The Boilermakers were able to return to the postseason once again in 2015-16 and the reality is their success the last two seasons has been highly dependent on this year's senior class, with A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis anchoring a rapidly improving Purdue team.
Of course the unfortunate reality is now both Hammons and Davis will graduate, highlighting one of Purdue's top departing senior classes since the team lost both JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore several years ago. It's not the end of the world for Purdue, though, especially if they can retain Caleb Swanigan and answer their depth issue at the point guard position. Either way, let's take a look at the departing seniors and what it means heading forward.
It wasn't always pretty for the four-star recruit, but A.J. Hammons turned in quite the career in West Lafayette. While the seven footer initially seemed to butt heads time and time again with Matt Painter, with fans questioning his effort and his desire to even play basketball (not exactly helped by his suspensions), Hammons eventually pieced things together. Maybe it was the addition of another talented center in Isaac Haas that finally set a fire under Hammons, but it's easy to see that the last two seasons in West Lafayette were highly successful for the Gary native and now Hammons has positioned himself for a future career at the NBA level.
As for this past season, the starting center was named AP Honorable Mention All-America, was a finalist for the Abdul-Jabbar Award (nation's top center), was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and made first-team All-Big Ten. Hammons also produced career highs in points (15.0 per game), rebounds (8.2 per game) and assists, as well as career highs in field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage. Hammons ability to score inside at will offensively was a major asset for a Purdue team, especially one that struggled at times from outside. While his ability to finally craft a well-rounded offensive game, eliminating turnovers in the paint and developing a consistent mid-range and long jumpshot, was a major development, his defensive ability was just as big of a game changer. Besides being a talented defender and rebounder, his ability to block shots inside was both a key addition, as well as led to quite a few momentum swings over the years.
Simply put, the loss of Hammons will sting in West Lafayette. Luckily for the Boilers, though, Isaac Haas has played alongside Hammons the last two seasons and has shown that he is a capable starting center in the Big Ten, especially as his offensive game has also improved over time. The size combination of Hammons-Haas will be lost, but if Caleb Swanigan returns for his sophomore season that means Purdue will have to 'settle' for a 7'2" and 6'11" duo anchoring the frontcourt.
It wasn't always easy for Hammons, with the star occasionally being benched, as well as even suspended for some off-the-court actions, but he was able to climb out of Painter's doghouse and never quit on the team or his teammates. While his career got off to a somewhat rocky and underwhelming start, the end result has Hammons with easily the most prolific Boilermaker career since the Baby Boilers were in town and he will easily be remembered for quite some time by Purdue fans.
On paper the value Rapheal Davis provided to the Boilermakers might not standout, with his balanced stat line not really producing any notable numbers at a glance. Of course the real value in Davis went beyond what he did statistically, with the departing senior easily being one of the team's leaders and by far their best perimeter defender. When all is said and done, there is reason that Davis made the Big Ten All-Defensive team the last two years, was the 2014-15 Big Ten Defensive Player of the year and was named to the Sports Illustrated All-Glue Team. His ability as both a leader and defender were critical to Purdue, especially when the team struggled with adversity (as well as consistency issues) over the years. Even when players were being benched for their questionable effort levels, Davis preserved and continued to lead the team.
It's pretty easy to speculate that without the presence of Davis, this team very likely wouldn't have turned it around and reached the postseason last season. Of course Davis also did some of the work himself, producing his best season statistically in 2014-15. While he had a bit of a drop off in production this past season, his value on the defensive side of the ball, his leadership and his reliability (and limited miscues) made him one of the most dependable players on the roster. You can look at his points, rebounds or assists and probably easily replace those numbers, but it was the intangibles that Davis brought to the table each night that made him so valuable and that will make him highly difficult to replace. Luckily for Painter, though, he does have another player who could help fill the void in Vince Edwards, who might not be as good as Davis defensively but has a more prolific offensive game at his disposal.
Purdue turned to a graduate transfer once again in 2015-16 to help shore up the backcourt, this year relying on Texas-Arlington transfer Johnny Hill. The well traveled Illinois native (he started his career at Illinois State) didn't have quite the impact as Jon Octeus did, but he helped out at the point, made some defensive plays and occasionally made some big plays down the stretch. He did lose minutes to P.J. Thompson, though, so his loss won't be as detrimental to Purdue as the departure of Octeus last spring. Either way, Hill managed to come in and provide some quality minutes and more then held his own. With his departure the Boilermakers will need to hope that incoming freshman Carsen Edwards can hit the ground running or that the Boilermakers can land another grad transfer at guard for the fourth season in a row (let's not forget Sterling Carter).
Stephen Toyra and Jon McKeeman
Rounding out the departing senior class are a pair of walk-ons in Stephen Toyra and Jon McKeeman. While McKeeman might not be known outside of the most devoted Purdue fans (he played 22 minutes over the last two seasons), Lafayette native Stephen Toyra made a few unexpected appearances over the years. The most noticeable of which was when Matt Painter, fed up with the effort of his scholarship players, brought in Toyra against Penn State on the road. The decision ultimately worked as Purdue eventually woke up and mustered out a win. While Toyra didn't see as much time as former walk-on Dru Anthrop, most fans were aware of his presence and he definitely put in a high amount of effort throughout his four seasons with the team.
Optimism Heading Forward?
Losing Hammons and Davis, as well as Hill, will definitely be a blow to Purdue. That being said, though, the way things panned out with Haas means the Boilers will still have a talented (and experienced) center down low and if they can retain Caleb Swanigan they'll still have a size advantage in the frontcourt. The leadership and defensive ability of Davis will be missed, but the versatility of Vince Edwards could be a capable replacement. If Purdue can finally find a legitimate answer at point guard and can continue to have guys like Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline produce, this is still a tournament caliber team.
As a Purdue fan I'm going to miss watching Hammons and Davis throughout the winter, but they at least managed to overcome a rough two and a half seasons and end their careers with back-to-back postseason appearances. Now it's the time for the younger Boilers to step and continue to build off of the recent success.