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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Purdue Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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 and season performance.

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Purdue enters the season with some lofty expectations. Of course that is what happens when you have a team that is considered to be one of the most talented Matt Painter has had while in West Lafayette. The question is if they can finally make it to that elusive Final Four.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 18-10 (13-6)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #25
  • NET Rating: #29
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (First Round)

Coming off of a down season and the loss of two prominent starters (Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern) and a pair of additional key rotational players (Evan Boudreaux, Jahaad Proctor), Purdue was going to be young in 2020-21. Not only did the team have a three player class that would all see immediate playing time, they were also going to play a pair of redshirt freshman with zero collegiate playing experience.

The early season was a bit all over the place, with some solid wins against Ohio State and Notre Dame offset by a dreadful loss to Miami (Fl.) and missed opportunities against Clemson, Rutgers and Iowa. After a postponed game against Nebraska, Purdue was entering a road game against Michigan State sitting at 7-5. The unlikely come from behind win sparked by Trevion Williams kick started a four game winning and a 11-3 close to the regular season. Outside of a Michigan loss, the other two losses came to ranked opponents on the road by a combined four points. When everything was said and done Purdue went from not being a tournament team to climbing all the way up to a four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Inexperience reared it’s head at the worst time, though, and Purdue suffered overtime losses in back-to-back games between the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. While the end result wasn’t as good as most of the season, Purdue built a strong base and returns basically every relevant player from the 2020-21 season.

2. Offseason Exits

Purdue brings back a loaded roster that only sees two players not returning to West Lafayette. The more notable of those two players is Aaron Wheeler, who started 14 games and played in 95 total throughout his three seasons at Purdue. Wheeler averaged 3.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game last year before transferring out to St. Johns. The loss of Wheeler wasn’t a huge surprise, as he was likely going to be squeezed out of the rotation this year. It’s unfortunate because he was one of the more athletic options on the floor and a spark plug for the Boilermakers, but his inconsistency on the offensive side of the ball kept him from truly breaking out for Purdue.

Also departing is Emmanuel Dowuona, a 6’10” center that transferred to Tennessee State during the offseason. Dowuona redshirted in 2018-19 before playing in nine games in 2019-20, averaging 1.3 points, 0.9 rebounds and 0.3 blocks per game. He missed last season due to an injury, something that plagued the three years Dowuona spent with the program. With a loaded frontcourt and Caleb Furst also entering the mix, Dowuona transferred out to find minutes elsewhere.

3. New Additions

Purdue retains basically everyone but they still bring a pair of interesting options in their 2021 recruiting class. First up is four star power forward / center Caleb Furst, who chose the Boilermakers over teams such as Indiana, Michigan State and Virginia. Furst represented the United States in the 2021 FIBA Under-19 World Cup, averaging 7.1 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Also set to join is four star power forward Trey Kaufman. In more normal seasons both guys could see some serious minutes this season, but with all of the experience on hand it’s likely they’ll be set for some smaller rotational roles as Painter tries to get them some experience.

Also joining the fray is Brian Waddell, who Matt Painter raved about at media day. The 6’7” small forward is set to redshirt the upcoming season.

4. Points of Optimism

Everything, basically.

The Boilermakers last year went from under the radar and maybe a bubble team to a four seed in the NCAA Tournament. That success was based heavily on a strong core of freshmen emerging with a handful of upperclassmen producing alongside them. All of those players return. Jaden Ivey, who looked like a potential star at times last year, didn’t enter the starting rotation until the end of January and will now have a full offseason to work on his game heading into his first full season as a starter. Guys like Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis had some consistency issues, but looked like they could fill major holes Purdue has had and did so in their first season.

Oh, and Zach Edey played so well from the very get go that it made potential foul issues with Trevion Williams largely irrelevant and gave Purdue two bigs they could use interchangeably. Edey, now a sophomore, didn’t start playing basketball until high school so he’s came this far after only a few years. Now every media member that has stopped through West Lafayette this summer has raved about how good he looks and how he’s the real deal. He also did this during a recent Purdue intra-squad scrimmage:

All of this ignores the factor that Purdue brings back one of the best bigs in the conference in Trevion Williams. As well as one of the best three point shooters in the league in Sasha Stefanovic, both of which being experienced seniors. And to round it out they have an experienced point guard in Eric Hunter Jr., as well as another veteran in backup Isaiah Thompson.

If you mix all of the talent and experience on the roster with the expected development of the freshmen, another strong freshmen recruiting class, the typically solid defense and head coach Matt Painter, it’s easy to see why this team is getting this level of hype. In a year with a difficult offseason and a ton of inexperienced players on the court, Purdue showed they were one of the better teams in the country and could compete with anyone in the Big Ten. Now that team returns basically everybody, has had a proper offseason and has seen several key players on opposing teams exit the league.

It’s not hard to see why Purdue fans are excited for the upcoming season.

5. Points of Concern

A lot of the issues surrounding Purdue’s team last year all look like they might carry over into the upcoming season.

One of the more notable issues, and a departure from some of Purdue’s prior teams, was their inability to consistently hit from three. They finished the season converting on 33.3% of their three pointers, good for 189th in the nation. Sasha Stefanovic led the team at 40%, even though he struggled following his return from a positive COVID test. Brandon Newman thankfully emerged down the stretch and both Isaiah Thompson and Mason Gillis were solid from beyond the arc, though the last two averaged only four three pointers per game combined.

While Painter has some pieces to shoot from beyond the arc, most of the guys that could hit weren’t consistent enough to keep Purdue from having some awful shooting nights. And with guard Eric Hunter and Jaden Ivey shooting 27.2% and 25.8% from three respectively, the Boilers feature a pair of guards that opposing teams can sag off knowing they won’t consistently get beat from deep.

Outside of their three point shooting, the other two issues have plagued Purdue for awhile now. One of those issues is turnovers. The Boilermakers aren’t a super sloppy team, but every now and then the team gets careless with the ball and it usually costs them games. Likewise, for as good as Purdue is defensively they still have a tendency to lapse on guarding the perimeter and allowing opposing teams to light them up from three more often then they should. For as good as Purdue has been defensively under Painter, it is wild that it’s still an issue that keeps happening.

6. Top Player

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Jaden Ivey after he blew up during the back half of the season last year. While his ability to get to the rim and score was key for Purdue, and helped them find success down the stretch, he was a meddling three point shooter (25.8%) last year. And while Ivey might be the flashier option, Purdue’s best player is likely their starting center Trevion Williams.

Last year Williams averaged 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, even with Zach Edey seeing plenty of action. He had some consistency issues at times, but when Williams popped off he single handedly took over games and carried Purdue. The Michigan State game where he dropped 26 of the teams 55 points or the second half performance against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament when he carried the team into overtime are prime examples of this.

Williams is a great rebounder and can pound the ball inside, having his way with a lot of the opposing centers that will end up guarding him. Occasionally he gets into foul trouble and there has been some conditioning issues, but with Edey waiting to sub in it essentially gives Painter two legit great options at the five spot and honestly helps remedy the most glaring issues with Williams game.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/9 - Bellarmine
  • 11/12 - Indiana State
  • 11/16 - Wright State
  • 11/20 - North Carolina (Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament)
  • 11/21 - Tennessee or Villanova (Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament)
  • 11/26 - Omaha
  • 11/30 - Florida State
  • 12/3 - Iowa
  • 12/9 - at Rutgers
  • 12/12 - North Carolina State (Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational)
  • 12/18 - Butler (Crossroads Classic)
  • 12/20 - Incarnate Word
  • 12/29 - Nicholls
  • 1/3 - Wisconsin
  • 1/8 - at Penn State
  • 1/11 - at Michigan
  • 1/14 - Nebraska
  • 1/17 - at Illinois
  • 1/20 - at Indiana
  • 1/23 - Northwestern
  • 1/27 - at Iowa
  • 1/30 - Ohio State
  • 2/2 - at Minnesota
  • 2/5 - Michigan
  • 2/10 - Illinois
  • 2/13 - Maryland
  • 2/16 - at Northwestern
  • 2/20 - Rutgers
  • 2/26 - at Michigan State
  • 3/1 - at Wisconsin
  • 3/5 - Indiana

The Big Ten season is typically a slugfest and luckily for Purdue they’ll start the first two months with plenty of quality opponents to help prepare for the back half of the season. Besides the mix of cupcakes the Boilermakers will face off against a top 25 North Carolina in the opening round of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament before playing Tennessee or Villanova on the next night. They’ll also tip off against Florida State in the Big Ten / ACC Challenge, North Carolina State in Brooklyn as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational and then Butler in the Crossroads Classic. Purdue’s conference slate in December include a pair of winnable of games against Iowa and Rutgers.

Purdue will face a key stretch at the beginning of conference play in January that should help determine if they are contender in the Big Ten title race. That January stretch of six games includes road trips to Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, as well as a home game against Wisconsin to start. The stretch includes the other two top Big Ten teams on the road and wins would be huge for Purdue. The schedule picks up again in February when Purdue will have a home stand consisting of Michigan, Illinois and Maryland.

Even the close to the season will be difficult for Purdue as it includes road trips to Michigan State and Wisconsin before hosting Indiana to close the season. The entire season will provide plenty of marquee matchups for Purdue.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • G: Eric Hunter (Sr.)
  • G: Jaden Ivey (So.)
  • G: Brandon Newman (r-So.)
  • F: Mason Gillis (r-So.)
  • F/C: Trevion Williams (Sr.)

I’m conflicted here, so I’m literally dropping the same starting five Jon Rothstein posted earlier in the month, though it is largely irrelevant.

First things first, I know Mason Gillis is suspended to start the season. So do all of you as you clearly made sure to let Jon know this. Gillis isn’t the first player to start the season suspended under Matt Painter and in the past Painter has had no issue going back to them once the suspension is over. As for the starting five being irrelevant, well it’s because any starting five here is largely irrelevant.

Why?

Well first things first, we know the backcourt will be solidified by breakout star Jaden Ivey and point guard Eric Hunter. Also, senior Trevion Williams will anchor the frontcourt once again after another impressive season last year where he single handedly took over numerous games for the Boilermakers and put the team on his back. The issue with why the starting five is largely irrelevant stems from the other two remaining spots, Painters tendency to switch up the starting lineup throughout the season and the odds that someone will come on throughout the season (see Ivey, who didn’t break into the starting lineup until the end of January and held his spot the rest of the season).

The biggest question lurking here, quite literally, is Zach Edey. The 7’4” center broke out early in his freshman season and everyone around the program has been raving about his development this offseason. But does Painter field a lineup with both Williams AND Edey on the court at the same time? He might here and there, but it’s not super likely for a starting five. That means Edey, who might not start, will still see solid playing time and a key role every night. Even without the starter designation.

Brandon Newman was also another freshman standout last season, averaging 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. He can shoot from deep, produce on and off the ball and is a solid defender. He probably should be starting in one of the remaining last two spots, but who gets the last spot? The previously mentioned Gillis is suspended to start the season, but his athleticism proved valuable last year and might be needed to roundup a more thorough small ball lineup. That leaves Sasha Stefanovic on the outside looking in, even if he is Purdue’s best three point shooter. The senior struggled after missing time with COVID, which also paved the way for Ivey to enter the starting rotation, but his three point shooting will keep him on the court one way or another. Will he get the nod over Gillis or Newman? Will it even matter if Painter switches up the lineup based on the needs of any specific game? The reality is the seven players mentioned here will all see considerably playing time regardless if they get a start to go into the stat book.

9. Realistic Team Goals

A realistic team goal heading into the season is hard to gauge for this team. The talent and experience makes this Painter’s best team since the Baby Boilers, but there are still a few troubling spots and in order to make that jump guys like Ivey and Edey will have to make the leap most pundits think they will.

The current spot this Purdue team is at is a team that could win the Big Ten, or hover somewhere around the top four and double bye spot they finished in last year. The reality is most years, regardless of how good you are, that’s what a realistic expectation should be in a conference that is as deep as the Big Ten. Likewise, this is an NCAA Tournament and anything less than a Sweet 16 would likely be seen as disappointing, but is it make or break for a Final Four? Especially in a postseason format where matchups are key and a bad draw on the second weekend could prove disastrous?

It probably won’t help much that the expectations will likely fluctuate throughout the season. Start strong and win a bunch of games early? High rankings and Final Four talk all season. Start off like they did last year? Hype will lessen, talk about the team underperforming will arise and then a deep postseason run would be seen as another Matt Painter success.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Purdue, for whatever reason, typically doesn’t flat out dominate throughout an entire season. They come out and will have stretches were they outperform everybody and show that they can beat anyone and everybody. Then they’ll follow with games where they just look bad, can’t shoot and act more like a middle of the pack Big Ten program.

With the talent and experience on hand the team should have no problem hovering at the top of the Big Ten. The question is if they can improve enough to be not only a Big Ten contender, but look (and play) like a top ten team ready to make a run in March. The talent is there for Painter, but even he seems to realize how difficult it is to find that level of success in college basketball...especially when everyone is calling for it.

If the Boilermakers see continued progress from potential breakout stars in Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey and if they can improve their three point shooting they will be a contender for the Big Ten title and they will be set for a strong showing in March. Even if the team still carries over some of the flaws that plagued them last year, Purdue fans can (and should) expect another successful season that sees Purdue hanging around in the Big Ten race and make it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Big Ten Prediction: 3rd Place

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