Purdue again is off to a slow start to this season. Close losses to Texas and Marquette have the Boilermakers at 3-2 overall and tough games against VCU, Tennessee/Florida State, Virginia, and Butler still remains in non-conference play. A common refrain amid Purdue’s slow start has been, “this is just like the last couple seasons, Purdue will figure it out.”
But is it? In 2018-’19, Purdue started 6-5 last season and then went 20-5 the rest of the way, collecting a Big Ten regular season championship and an Elite Eight appearance. A year before that, Purdue was 4-2 after a disastrous loss to Western Kentucky in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. They went 26-5 the rest of the way and reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Credit to Matt Painter and his ability to build the Purdue program into something that gets stronger throughout the season, but there are some clear differences in this year’s group. Let’s take a look at a few reasons this year might be a little more difficult for Purdue to bounce back.
The first concern is proven players. The Boilermakers have around the same experience level this season as last, but there are more unproven commodities on this season’s roster.
Last season, Purdue had Carsen Edwards dominating offensive possessions and defensive attention and Ryan Cline bombing shots from deep. Hindsight is always easier, but these were players who had proven their ability to pass, shoot, score, and defend. Later in the season, Grady Eifert proved to be part of that group as well.
The year before that, Purdue had its senior class of Isaac Haas, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and PJ Thompson as its experienced foundation, one of the most experienced and proven groups in program history.
This season Purdue’s rotation looks much different. The core of the group is all freshmen and sophomores. Its sophomore group of Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter, and Sasha Stefanovic played a lot last season, but it was all in a complementary role to Carsen Edwards. There’s a lot of potential with that group, but the consistency and production are not there yet.
Even in its most experienced players, Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern, and High Point transfer Jahaad Proctor, all are unproven in various aspects of their game. For Haarms, it is a question of whether he can become a go-to scorer, or always need someone to initiate for him. For Eastern, it is shooting and developing his offensive game. And for Proctor, he’s just so new that it’s impossible to say right now.
Last year, Purdue had the luxury of having maybe the most talented offensive player in college basketball and one of the best shooters. Those were rocks to lean on when the 6-5 start came. Coach Painter was able to build an offense and team role structure that suited those constants. This year? It’s completely different. Purdue’s trying to build this with younger and more unproven players. There are flashes of it working, but then moments in which Purdue doesn’t know who is going to take that big shot, or rotate over on a dribble drive.
Three Point Shooting
A main driver in Purdue’s recent success has been the three-point shot. In conference play over the past four seasons, the Boilermakers have led the league in three-point shooting percentage. The last time it was outside the top three was 2015.
It has transformed Purdue’s motion offense. Last season, Purdue attempted nearly 100 more three-pointers than any other team in the league. Like most of the NBA, Purdue has looked to three-pointers and shots at the rim to become more efficient on offense. This has led the Boilermakers to post four consecutive top-25 KenPom offensive efficiency numbers.
So far this season it has been a different story.
Purdue is shooting only 32.7 percent from three-point range. Its attempts and point distribution from distance are both down by nearly 10 percent from last year. The expectation was that Purdue would shoot less three’s than last year, but that 32.7 percent number has to climb. To free up Eastern’s ability to drive, players like Aaron Wheeler (31.6 percent), Eric Hunter Jr. (31.2 percent), and Jahaad Proctor (25 percent) all need to shoot higher percentages. This is especially the case with all three averaging over three attempts a game.
There have been some good things happening with Purdue’s shooting. Stefanovic is at 42 percent on the season and had a great game against Texas. Hopefully, the week between games has allowed him to get healthier. Haarms is also 2-5 from three this season. If the 7-foot-3 big man can continue to develop that shot, it really could open things up for Purdue heading towards the basket.
The Boilermakers weren’t going to match the three-point bombardment from last season, but they need to be better than what they are right now.
In looking at Matt Painter’s time in West Lafayette, his best teams have always had strong power forwards. From Robbie Hummel to Vincent Edwards to Caleb Swanigan, the Boilermakers excel with a four-man that can pass, dribble, and shoot.
Last year, Purdue got stronger when former walk-on Grady Eifert became one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball and a 43 percent three-point shooter.
The heir apparent to this role is redshirt sophomore, Aaron Wheeler. The athletic 6-foot-8 forward shows flashes, but so far has been a player that is struggling from deep and one of the least efficient offensive players on the team.
Behind Wheeler is kind of a mess right now too. Senior Evan Boudreaux, in his second year of a transfer from Dartmouth, earned more time against Chicago St. and scored 14 points and grabbed 5 rebounds. Painter has yet to really try a Haarms-Boudreaux frontcourt against any of the Power-6 teams. Boudreaux played a combined eight minutes against Texas and Marquette.
More common is relying on Eastern at the four, but that means less shooting on the floor, and puts Eastern at more of a risk with foul trouble.
Painter said in the offseason he was experimenting with playing Trevion Williams at the four, but we’ve not yet seen that this season.
Is the way out of the positional rut is Wheeler showing he can be a productive, 30+ minutes a game-type player? It appears that way. If not, Purdue will need to get creative, and that puts a strain on the roles of other young players throughout the roster.
There’s still a lot of season left for Purdue and plenty of opportunities to earn signature victories. Those that are casually assuming it will be just like last year and the year before that are not looking hard at the situation. It’s possible, there’s plenty of talent, but that talent is young, inexperienced, and needs to come into its own quickly. It is going to be more difficult to pull that off.