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2020-’21 Purdue Boilermakers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Purdue Boilermakers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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 said team.

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After five years of incredible success, Purdue was due for a setback last season. The program had put together an impressive run under Matt Painter in the 2010s and the Boilermakers were overdue for a step back. Unfortunately, that regression occurred during a year when the Big Ten was as deep and as talented as its ever been.

To those who read this site regularly, this is probably well known.

But the Big Ten has truly become one of the nation’s premier basketball conferences.

Over the last decade or so, the league has become deeper, more balanced, and more nationally relevant than anytime in its history. The Big Ten has grown from solid to nationally elite, ranking as KenPom’s best conference four times over the last decade and the second-best league two other times. Both are great marks for a league formerly known as mediocre.

But while the growth has been great for Big Ten fans, BTN subscribers, and fans of great basketball, it’s also come with a few tradeoffs. In particular, navigating Big Ten play has become tremendously difficult. Teams can no longer skate through large portions of January and February without playing a quality opponent. Every night is a battle. And when a team does get lucky enough to catch a “break” on the schedule, it’s usually followed by a whopper of an opponent shortly thereafter. Even getting above .500 in conference play has become difficult, which is something hardly anyone would have said a decade ago.

And this was certainly the case last season. The Big Ten ranked first nationally in conference efficiency and was as deep as ever. The conference finished the season with 12 teams ranked in KenPom’s top 40, including seven in the top 25. Per KenPom’s projections, 10 teams would have made the NCAA Tournament had the postseason been played. It was the deepest Big Ten fans have seen in recent memory, and perhaps ever. After all, roughly 86 percent of the conference finished in KenPom’s top 40, which was a 43 percent (!!!) increase from the year before when the league sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament. It was an all-time great year for the league.

But as I repeatedly wrote during the season, somebody was going to bear the brunt of all that success. Even if two teams playing each other are great, someone has to lose. It’s the nature of the game. There’s always going to be a winner and a loser. Somebody was going to slip up and suffer the consequences of an absolutely brutal slate. And in a season with no margin for error, some respectable team was going to suffer.

Unfortunately for Boilermaker fans, one of those teams was Purdue.

Despite finishing the season with pretty impressive metrics, Purdue slogged its way to a 16-15 overall record and a 9-11 mark in Big Ten play. The team looked great in the advanced stats (24th on KenPom), but didn’t have the wins to match it. And it’s pretty easy to argue the underwhelming record was a byproduct of the team’s ferocious schedule, which ranked sixth nationally. Purdue’s losses came almost exclusively against quality opponents in tight games. And that should make for an interesting transition into this season. Purdue’s record might have been overwhelming, but the roster is in a lot better shape than 16-15 suggests.

And things could improve significantly this time around. The team is expected to be led by a handful of skilled rising juniors in Eric Hunter, Sasha Stefanovic, and Trevion Williams. All three showed considerable growth last season and should be able to make some noise this time around. Purdue will also be welcoming a talented 2020 recruiting class, highlighted by two top 100 prospects. With all these pieces, Painter should once again have enough to win at a high level.

But can he get it done? Let’s take a look.

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 Casey Bartley of Hammer & Rails breaking down Purdue’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 16-15 (9-11)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #24
  • NET Rating: #32
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

We’ve already touched on a lot of this above, but I don’t think there are many better examples of a team getting screwed by its schedule than last year’s Purdue squad. The Boilermakers were a young team that showed potential, but couldn’t get things together quickly enough to survive a brutal Big Ten slate. Purdue wasn’t a bad team. It was just killed by too many tough opponents. If you don’t believe me, let’s just dive into the numbers.

Despite that 16-15 overall record, Purdue ended up ranked 24th on KenPom and with a team efficiency rating of +18.57. Here’s how that compares to some recent Big Ten teams:

  • 2019-’20 - Purdue - +18.57
  • 2019-’20 - Rutgers - +17.72 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2019-’20 - Illinois - +17.23 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2019-’20 - Indiana - +15.73 — Projected NCAA Tournament Appearance
  • 2015-’16 - Wisconsin - +16.55 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (S16)
  • 2018-’19 - Iowa - +16.02 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2016-’17 - Maryland - +14.34— NCAA Tournament Appearance (R64)
  • 2016-’17 - Northwestern - +15.81 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2016-’17 - Michigan State - +15.51 — -- NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2018-’19 - Minnesota - +14.35 — NCAA Tournament Appearance (R32)
  • 2015-’16 - Michigan - +14.15 — NCAA Tournament First Four (R64)

We know every season is different and it’s dangerous to buy too much into advanced stats, but that’s an incredible list of teams there. It clearly shows the Boilermakers played at an NCAA Tournament level on a play-by-play basis. And it’s not even like we had to be back too far to find them. We only had to go back four seasons to find 10 other Big Ten teams that made the NCAAs with a lower KenPom rating than last year’s Purdue squad. And many of them didn’t just make the field, they made it comfortably and did well once they made it. Last year’s Illinois team was a projected seven seed and Wisconsin made the Sweet 16 in 2016 with a + 16.55 rating, which is well below where last year’s Boilermakers finished.

That list should send the message loud and clear. The schedule dictated the results for last year’s Purdue team. The Boilermakers ranked sixth nationally in strength of schedule and it’s easy to see why. Purdue faced five top 75 teams in non-conference play and played a rigorous Big Ten slate afterward. And if you need further evidence regarding Purdue’s schedule, just look at the team’s 15 losses:

  • 11/9 - No. 61 Texas (70-66)
  • 11/13 - at No. 31 Marquette (65-55)
  • 11/30 - vs No. 15 Florida State (63-60-OT)
  • 12/15 - at No. 162 Nebraska (70-56)
  • 12/21 - vs No. 25 Butler (70-61)
  • 1/5 - at No. 30 Illinois (63-37)
  • 1/9 - at No. 16 Michigan (84-78-2OT)
  • 1/18 - at No. 11 Maryland (57-50)
  • 1/21 - No. 30 Illinois (79-62)
  • 1/28 - at No. 28 Rutgers (70-63)
  • 2/11 - No. 26 Penn State (88-76)
  • 2/15 - at No. 8 Ohio State (68-52)
  • 2/18 - at No. 22 Wisconsin (69-65)
  • 2/22 - No. 16 Michigan (71-63)
  • 3/7 - No. 28 Rutgers (71-68-OT)

Of Purdue’s 15 losses, 14 came against top 70 opponents, 13 against top 35 opponents, and five against top 25 opponents. Many of those losses also came by tight margins. I’ve taken the liberty of bolding every game that came by more than 10 points above. As you can see, it’s just a few of those matchups. This wasn’t a case of Purdue blowing winnable games or losing at home. These were tight losses against quality opponents. It’s an absolutely brutal way for a season to unfold.

Fortunately, there were some high points along the way. Purdue blew out Michigan State at home in early January, swept Indiana and Iowa, and knocked off Wisconsin as well. Conversely, the loss to Nebraska and blown opportunities against Texas, Michigan, and Rutgers probably still sting fans.

Individual statistical leaders were Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms, Eric Hunter, and Trevion Williams. Eastern led the team in assists and steals. Haarms led the team in blocks. Hunter led the team in minutes. Williams led the team in points, rebounds, and total win shares.

2. Offseason Exits

While the vast majority of Purdue’s roster returns from last season, there are a few notable departures. The team is losing five players in Evan Boudreaux, Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms, Tommy Luce, and Jahaad Proctor. This group includes two starters and two key reserves. None of these departures appear devastating upon initial review.

The two biggest departures are Boudreaux and Eastern. Each started at least 10 games last season and contributed significantly while on the court. Eastern was widely projected to be a breakout player for the Boilermakers last offseason, but failed to live up to those expectations as he struggled to find offensive consistently. Still, Eastern was a great defensive player and one of the better facilitators on the roster. Boudreaux also grew into a reliable player during the season, contributing on the defensive end and the boards.

Haarms and Proctor are also notable departures, having put together similar profiles last season. The two played quasi-starter minutes last year and had some outstanding nights during the process. Unfortunately, their inconsistent play limited their potential. There were simply too many off nights for either to solidify their spot in the lineup. Haarms regularly underwhelmed on the defensive boards and struggled to create his own shot. Meanwhile, Proctor lacked enough shooting to elevate his game.

Still, Haarms played nearly half of the team’s minutes and Proctor actually finished second on the roster in total minutes. As such, you can’t overlook these two either. Each needs to be replaced if Purdue is going to take a step forward. The final loss was Luce, who played 29 minutes all season.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing regarding these departures was Purdue’s depth last season. The team had nine players average at least 17 minutes a game last year and only one (Hunter) topped 30 a game. In short, this was an incredibly deep team where no one player dominated things. And that makes replacing players a lot easier. The same can be said for the team’s offensive production. Williams had the highest usage rate on the roster, but he only played 52.4 percent of Purdue’s minutes. A lot of players carried the load for the Boilermakers. And while replacing the departures won’t be easy, it’s just a bit easier when you have a plethora of options with experience.

3. New Additions

This season, the Boilermakers will be adding three new recruits and three walk-ons. The recruits are Zach Edey, Jaden Ivey, and Ethan Morton. According to 247Sports, Ivey and Morton are rated as four-star prospects and Edey is a three-star. The site also lists Morton as a combo guard, Ivey as a shooting guard, and Edey as a center.

The recruits receiving the most attention from this group are Ivey and Morton. They are listed at 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 respectively and are both expected to provide additional depth in the backcourt. Ivey is an athletic guard who can shoot from deep and Morton is a player with a diverse skill set who can pass, drive, and rebound. Both are going to get legit opportunities to contribute early in their careers and arrive as top 100 prospects.

And these opportunities got even bigger last week with the injury to Hunter, who is expected to be out six to eight weeks. Expect Ivey and Morton to get extended playing time as Hunter recovers. That should be good for Purdue moving forward, even if it’s a bit sticky the next month or two.

Meanwhile, Edey arrives with much different expectations. He’s rated 431st nationally and looks extremely raw. However, he has the size to bang down low at 7-foot-3 and seems to fit the mold of some of Purdue’s recent centers under Painter. And with the surprising transfer of Haarms, don’t be surprised if Edey finds his way on the court sooner rather than later. The three walk-ons at Carson Barrett, Chase Martin, and Jared Wulburn. None are expected to contribute much for the Boilermakers this season.

All told, this is a really nice group for Purdue. Two of the three look capable of making early impacts and the third could be a really dangerous piece if he develops. And for a team with solid depth across the lineup, that’s a great group to be adding.

4. Points of Optimism

There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this year’s Boilermakers, but let’s start with the obvious: Purdue isn’t starting from the typical level of a team that went 16-15 last season. The Boilermakers were a lot better than many believe. And while we’ve touched on a lot of this above, it deserves to be mentioned again. This is a team with a top 25ish profile from last season.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it matters. When setting expectations for a season, our best data point is last year. And looking at a 16-15 record here would be tremendously misleading. We need to rely on the advanced numbers more for the Boilermakers. And with that in mind, this team could easily improve its record. All the team needs is some modest improvement and a moderately easier schedule. Both seem likely.

Purdue also has a proven lineup to go with that returning profile. Hunter is a proven guard in the backcourt, Stefanovic is a proven play maker on the perimeter, and Williams is one of the best forwards in the league. That’s one of the best three-man groups in the Big Ten. And considering the league’s depth and talent, that’s saying something. All three could end up in serious All-Big Ten contention at season’s end.

And that core should also have some help. Purdue is adding two talented guards in the backcourt in Ivey and Morton, Brandon Newman is coming off a redshirt, and the team also has a few new faces in the frontcourt in Emmanuel Dowuona and Edey as well. And while no one from that group might jump out upon initial review, they’re not going to have to carry the team because of the big three returning. They can all be role players, which is a great spot for young players to be in.

We can also have some faith these pieces will come together as well, since Purdue has a proven head coach in Matt Painter. We’ve seen him take ordinary players and turn them into All-Big Ten contributors. And it’s safe to think some of that will happen here. Time and develop can work wonders and Purdue fans should expect some of that after last season.

5. Points of Concern

This is going to read like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, but it needs to be mentioned here. Much of the optimism about this year’s Purdue team is based on the theory that the Boilermakers were better than the team’s record last season. It’s why many think Purdue can take a massive step forward after an underwhelming 16-15 campaign.

However, we also need to recognize the possibility that Purdue was a paper giant last year, putting together great statistical numbers while struggling on the court. While advanced stats are great, a team needs to produce on the court to justify those rankings. And Purdue certainly did not last year, blowing plenty of winnable games down the stretch and failing to capitalize on opportunities to build an NCAA Tournament resume.

And that’s the tricky part here. If Purdue plays looks like its statistical profile (24th nationally) last season, there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about this year. However, if the Boilermakers are closer to the team’s record (16-15 overall), things could get rough. After all, Purdue barely finished above .500 and loses a handful of key contributors. The team has more than enough to overcome those departures, but it’s certainly enough to warrant some concern from fans heading into this season.

There are also some major questions about how much Williams can improve on last year’s campaign. Purdue desperately needs him to grow from solid big man into superstar this season and that’s often a big ask. College basketball is often a sport where results are dictated by the best players on the court. And while Williams has done some nice things, he hasn’t shown enough yet to believe he is going to be able to outperform many of the league’s other elite players. After all, he only played 52.4 percent of Purdue’s minutes last season. That has to improve if the team is going to achieve its goals.

The frontcourt depth also remains a concern. Boudreaux and Haarms are gone and there aren’t a ton of obvious answers. Williams will grab most of the minutes at the five, but as noted above, he isn’t exactly a player who stays on the floor for massive playing time. And even if Wheeler can lock down the four spot, there isn’t a ton behind those two. You’re likely going to see some guys with little to no experience see some serious time here.

Purdue has enough proven returners to believe the team can overcome these issues. However, a lot will depend on the team figuring out how to close out games. Last year’s team struggled with that and it derailed a top 25 statistical profile. Fans will hope that doesn't happen this time around.

6. Top Player

Heading into this season, Purdue pretty clearly has its top option in Williams. He put up impressive numbers last year and hopes to top those this time around. I broke down his game in our top 25 player countdown. I wrote the following about him:

After playing limited minutes in 2018-’19, fans weren’t expecting a ton from Williams heading into last season. There was potential there, but most expected him to be a complimentary piece for the Boilermakers. However, he took off in mid-December and never looked back. Williams dominated the team’s offensive production and was a monster on the boards, leading the league in offensive rebounding rate during league play.

Perhaps one underrated part of Williams’ game is his passing ability. He finished 14th in the league in assist rate during Big Ten play and consistently created for others offensive. Additionally, Williams also held his own as a defensive player last season, finishing 22nd in the league in steal rate. Williams remains a dominant force inside and is one of the better offensive forwards in the league.

. . .

Expect Williams to be a dominant force for Purdue offensively this year. The Boilermakers are going to look for him to initiate things and make plays down low. And if he can improve his consistency and ability to stay on the floor, he has a serious shot at All-Big Ten first team status if things go well.

If Williams were to underwhelm, some potential darkhorses here are Hunter and Stefanovic. Both put up decent numbers as role players for the Boilermakers last season. Hunter played a ton of minutes and Stefanovic was the team’s most reliable three-point shooter. Here’s what I wrote about Hunter in our top 25 countdown:

Hunter was a pesky player last season and I mean that in a good way. He was a great on ball defender and could do just enough offensively to keep defenses honest. Hunter ranked 16th in the conference in steal rate and hit 35.5 percent of his looks from three-point range. Those are nice numbers to have when you’re not the primary offensive option (Trevion Williams was and is expected to be once again this season).

Along with those skills, Hunter also remained a decent threat to get to the line and converted on 76.1 percent of his free throw attempts. He also finished as one of the team’s most efficient passers last season.

. . .

With Williams returning for his junior season, there’s no debating who will be the team’s primary offensive weapon. As such, expect Hunter to continue to be a second or third scoring option (at best) for the Boilermakers next season. But he should be able to take a moderate step forward there and continue to dominate defensively.

And if Hunter can find a way to elevate his production, Purdue could quickly become one of the most dangerous teams in next year’s Big Ten. It should be fun to see what he and the Boilermakers can do this year.

Unfortunately and as mentioned above, Hunter will be sidelined with an injury for six to eight weeks. As such, it’s hard to see him outperforming Williams. Two other potential wildcards here are Ivey and Morton. We will have to see how well they hit the floor running. Regardless, expect Williams to be the team’s top option.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/25 - Liberty (Melbourne, FL)
  • 11/26 - Clemson/Mississippi State (Melbourne, FL)
  • 12/1 - Oakland
  • 12/4 - Valparaiso
  • 12/8 - at Miami (FL)
  • 12/12 - Indiana State
  • 12/19 - Notre Dame (Indianapolis, IN)
  • TBA - Unknown
  • TBA - Indiana
  • TBA - at Indiana
  • TBA - Unknown

Normally, I would use this space to dive into Purdue’s schedule, the biggest games on the slate this year, and some expectations for how the team should perform. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the erratic scheduling changes, we still don’t have a full schedule. Rumors suggest the Big Ten will release the conference slate shortly. We’ll keep our fingers crossed, but I still don’t have it at the time I’m writing this article.

However, we do know some things about how this year’s slate will look. To start, we know the non-conference slate and there are plenty of intriguing games here. Purdue will face an intriguing Miami (FL) team on the road in early December as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and a handful of pesky in-state teams as well. Fans should be realistically hoping for a 6-1 or 7-0 record coming out of those matchups. If not, it could be a challenging season for the Boilermakers.

We also know all of this year’s games will be played in front of reduced capacity crowds, if anyone is able to attend at all. That’s going to make for a bizarre experience in Big Ten play, which has led the nation for years in fan attendance. Expect road games against teams like Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin to be much easier this time around.

As for Purdue, expect another battle against a brutal Big Ten slate. It will be important for the Boilermakers to do work in non-conference play to overcome that.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jaden Ivey (Fr.) - 55%
  • SG: Sasha Stefanovic (Rs. Jr.) - 90%
  • SF: Brandon Newman (Rs. Fr.) - 60%
  • PF: Aaron Wheeler (Rs. Jr.) - 65%
  • C: Trevion Williams (Jr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Purdue enters this season with plenty of uncertainty regarding its starting lineup. And that shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. The team lost two starters and two of its top reserve options from last season. There are just a lot of moving pieces here. The good news is Purdue has plenty of returning talent and is adding some great new options as well.

A few weeks ago, things looked pretty certain in the backcourt. Hunter would start at the point and Stefanovic would play alongside him. However, Hunter then went down with injury, opening up a spot in the lineup. Because of that injury, expect a solid rotation at the one with true freshman Ivey and returning guard Isaiah Thompson. Based on what I’ve been hearing, I’m leaning with Ivey here. However, both are going to get minutes at the point.

Stefanovic will get the vast majority of the minutes at the two. He’s an established starter and a key piece of Purdue’s offensive production. And while backup minutes behind him will be limited, there are plenty of decent options. Brandon Newman is coming off a redshirt and can play here and true freshman Morton will also likely get a look in the first few games.

On the wing, things are also pretty fluid. Wheeler is back after a moderately productive season and will likely grab a starting spot as a result. However, there’s really no telling who might lock down the spot alongside him. I’ve picked Newman as he has a nice combination of experience and talent. However, you could also see players like Morton and redshirt freshman Mason Gillis get a shot to start as well.

What’s exciting about the wing group here is the potential. It’s the position with the most uncertainty on Purdue’s roster entering the season, but it’s also the one that could let the Boilermakers take a step forward. It’s just going to take some players delivering on their hype and improving. A lot of eyes will be on players like Newman and Wheeler.

Upfront, Williams is going to dominate the minutes at the five. As noted above, his biggest challenge will be staying on the court more than half of Purdue’s minutes. Behind him, expect Purdue to play true freshman Edey. He’s a massive center and could contribute well as a shot blocker.

Overall, there’s plenty to like about Purdue’s lineup this season, especially once Hunter gets back on his feet. Much will depend on how the wing group progresses.

9. Outside Perspective From Casey Bartley of Hammer & Rails

“Last year, we knew what to expect from every Purdue player. I’m here to tell you, playing experienced, known quantities is very overrated.

This year, Purdue will be playing 5 players that haven’t touched the court in a Purdue uniform. Two redshirt freshmen that have had the chance to learn the offense, work on their body, and sharpen their shot - Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis. Newman is the kind of athlete/shooter that Purdue hasn’t had in the same body in a long time. He’s a potential star. Gillis is an all-around talent that could be a big guard or a small big man.

But the real excitement comes with the three true freshman, all of them looking to have a big impact on the season. What’s bigger than a 7’4 center with a 7’8 wingspan? Zach Edey is the next big man for Purdue, someone who is new to basketball, but who’s size and mobility is already getting rave reviews. Ethan Morton is the next in the lineage of smart passing, great shooting guards with size for Coach Painter to play with.

But Jaden Ivey is the guy. A 6’4 point guard with the kind of chops to break down a defense at the rim and knock down shots late in the game. If he’s exceptional, the Boilermakers will be a top-10 team. This Purdue team should look like an antithesis to last year’s unit. There will be smart passing, athletes, and shooting everywhere on the floor.

All that while having the best offensive center in the conference not named Garza. Purdue absolutely has the upside and talent to win the Big Ten (It’s definitely not gonna be Iowa winning.) , but also the youth to drop a lot of close games.” - Casey Bartley.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s no debating last season was an underwhelming one for Boilermaker fans. The team regressed after losing a ton of talent during the offseason. Unfortunately, things looked even worse than they were thanks to an absolutely brutal slate. Fans will hope the good version of last year’s team feeds into this season.

The good news is Purdue has the depth and talent to be a key factor in the Big Ten this season. Williams could be an All-Big Ten first team player this season and the Boilermakers also have experienced options like Hunter and Stefanovic who should help things out. Purdue is also adding a talented group of newcomers who could contribute immediately. Conversely, Purdue’s biggest challenge will be finding reliable depth and improving its production on the wing.

Fans should expect improvement this season and a record that better correlates to the team’s play on the court. And if players like Newman and Wheeler can surprise in a positive manner, it’s not too much of a reason to think the team could be in contention for a finish toward the top of the Big Ten.

Big Ten Prediction: 7th Place