All right, that rant is over for now. I could go on, like about how hate is hate, no matter how you try to frame it, but I think we’re all ready for me to go back to my sports corner. And in that corner was pretty well nothing but disappointment. It really could have gone better after what last week brought. Purdue lost both of their games this week. The Pacers dropped two games this week, though both have pretty good explanations.* The Blackhawks have lost two straight. At least the Olympics start next week, right?
*Most especially the one in Denver. The fact they hung around in that game at all is a huge testament to how good this Pacer team really is.
This Purdue team is really disappointing, by the way. I still swear up and down that this team has athletes and is actually pretty talented. But that talent is so young and raw. You saw flashes of it, especially at the end of the first half against Wisconsin. But they just don’t have the ability to play like that consistently just yet. They should start showing signs of doing that more often by now, though, and it’s just not happening. Where should the blame go here?
Matt Painter has to be the first person you look at, and he surely takes some of the blame here. He did recruit these guys, and he is the coach that is supposed to be molding and developing these guys. Maybe he’s not the coach we all hoped he would be, but I just have a hard time believing that. He might have gotten awfully lucky with the Hummel-Moore-Johnson-Martin class. That is certainly a possibility. But most schools don’t come in with a class like that all at once. It certainly doesn’t happen consistently. I don’t even think Duke could claim that sort of batting average from that year.* But knowing that Painter has pulled that sort of class before, and done it in such recent memory, makes it hard for Boilermaker fans to be patient, I think. I think it also makes it hard to be patient because that class came together and matured so quickly. I find it hard to believe that Painter is the main problem here.
*Remember, Scott Martin still had a pretty darned good career at Notre Dame after transferring.
So what else is the problem here? It could be the young players themselves. Maybe they just really aren’t as good as believed. That would certainly be a simple and rational thought. But it just doesn’t feel like that. I’m not willing to believe that yet. I do think the players need to shoulder a bigger burden of the blame, though, but my thought goes more to the older players here. It’s a bit of a counterintuitive argument, though, so bear with me.
Let me preface all of this by saying that the current Boilermakers are not nearly as good as the team we are about to look at. I don’t think anybody is expecting that. But we can still draw some comparisons, I think. Now, let’s take a look back at the 2007-08 team, when Hummel and company were freshmen. First thing you’ll probably notice is there is only one senior on that team: Tarrance Crump. I do remember Crump, but you would be forgiven if you don’t. Certainly nobody was really expecting him to be a centerpiece and leader of the team. What you do see is a team packed to the gills with freshmen and sophomores. What you may remember* from that team was the atmosphere coming into that season. It was widely expected to be a rebuilding year. Purdue had just graduated Carl Landry and David Teague, two very good players who gave the eventual national champion Florida their toughest game in the NCAA tournament. There was no pressure on this group. Going in, it was known to be a young and relatively unknown team. Whatever we saw, that’s what we had to build on. Luckily, that team gelled and flourished almost right away.
*Or may not, since we’re looking back in hindsight.
This year’s team is young, but it’s not that young. Yes, of the guys that get real playing time, seven are either freshmen or sophomores. But there are four seniors who also get real playing time. And, well, that’s part of the problem, I think. Normally you feel pretty good about a team with that many seniors playing, but this is where context is important. Two of those seniors, Errick Peck and Sterling Carter, are senior transfers. That brings you instant experience, but it does not bring you instant experience in Purdue’s system and style. It’s just like trading for a guy in the pros, or signing them late in the offseason. There just isn’t enough time to really integrate yourself into the system. You have to find your place on the fly. Doing that as freshmen or even sophomores, it’s a bit easier. You’re expected to be doing that. As a senior, you’ve had experience and have already gone through adapting to a system. It’s tough. Was it a worthwhile risk for Painter to take? Certainly. But I think, at this point, we can say it was a swing and a miss.* The other two seniors, frankly, aren’t the leader type. Travis Carroll is well past the time to be considered a bust. Which is a shame, he seems like a good guy. It just turned out he wasn’t as good as basketball as it looked like he was at Danville. Terone Johnson is a good athlete, and clutch as hell, but I sure don’t see him as a real leader out there. He also runs into the problem that DJ Byrd ran into last year. He’s a great complimentary player, but you don’t want to depend on him. He’s like a good spare tire. Unfortunately, Purdue has had to rely on him, and that’s not something you necessarily want for the first 35 minutes of a game.
*This isn’t to say they haven’t helped. Peck in particular is a very good player and has given Purdue good minutes. But, in the long run, I think taking on these two guys has done more harm than good at this point.
About the only thing worse than no leadership is bad leadership, and I think that’s where the makeup of this senior class comes into play. You’ve got two guys who also just got here, so they’re not going to lead the way. Caroll and T. Johnson just simply aren’t good enough to really lead the way. But they all get enough time (and possession) during the game that it clouds the way for many of the younger guys to truly assert themselves. I think this has been getting better as of late, but a quarter into the Big Ten season is not the time to start doing this. With the 2007-08 team, there was no choice but to let the young guys figure it out on the fly and develop their games and roles with each other during those early out-of-conference games. And that’s okay. Better to do that against the Lipscombs and Texas Southern’s* of the world than against top ten conference teams.
*Also something to point out: that year’s out-of-conference slate looks pretty damn good. It seems like that should be the sort of schedule every school should try to draw up, striking the perfect balance between lower competition, as described above, and top-tier schools like Louisville and Missouri. This year’s schedule seemed a little light to me. There was Oklahoma St. in Orlando, but the rest of the tournament was pretty “blah.” Washington St. hasn’t been good for some time, and Butler was already on the schedule. West Virginia was unfortunate, as they are also down this year, but it’s hard for me to fault that, as that has been a good pick up for Purdue the past few seasons. Boston College was a disappointing matchup for the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, too. Frankly, they (at least this year) were more on par with UMES or Rider than, say, a Clemson or Virginia Tech (to pick some recent matchups) would be.
The other thing working against this young class: atmosphere. Purdue missed the tournament last year. Even missed the NIT. And, frankly, the CBI was a pretty big disappointment. Both in the sense that they were in that field and that they didn’t win it, or even make the championship rounds. After the sustained success of the Hummel years that followed the Landry-Teague years, which were successful, if not on the level of what was about to come, the Purdue fanbase is becoming a bit restless. Purdue may be downright cursed once it gets to the NCAA tournament, but by God, we are a school that gets to the tournament. Between having to play in the lowly CBI and the housecleaning that went on after last season, there is certainly pressure on this Boiler squad to perform that simply wasn’t there for the “Baby Boilers.” At least, not at that point in their careers.
And, well, now, here we are. If Purdue went on a tear and won the rest of their games, they would be sitting at 24-7. They have the raw talent to make that happen, but let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen. Under Matt Painter, they’ve lost twelve games and still made the tournament. That was the last Hummel season, when he was clearly the star. I don’t think this year’s team would get in with that many losses, they don’t have anybody that demands the kind of respect Robbie Hummel did. Honestly, I don’t think this team even gets talked about if they finish 19-12. If they do want to make it a hard decision, they have to win the rest of their home games. That would be five more wins, putting them at 18 wins with where they are right now. That leaves six games on the road, against Michigan, Penn St., Ohio St., Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Let’s say they win half of them. That puts the team at 21-10. That feels like a team that could very well make the tournament. Failing that, it should be a good spot in the NIT. At this point, I would feel like that’s a pretty darned successful season.
Do I think that’s going to happen? Honestly, it could. They put themselves in a position to win at Minnesota, you would like to think they could win that one at home. I still haven’t seen any reason why Purdue can’t beat Indiana at home. The Michigan schools will be tough at home, but not impossible. Especially if Michigan St. keeps losing players to injury. On the road, you would certainly hope Purdue can handle Penn St. and Nebraska, so that just leaves one upset, which they were going to need for the tournament resume anyway.
I’m avoiding the question. I know. Do I think it will happen? In my heart of hearts, I don’t think so. They’ve wasted all their wiggle room already. I think this will be an NIT team, though, which is a step up from last year. And I hear that next year’s class is supposed to be awfully strong again, so maybe that will the final piece that puts Purdue back on the level they typically live. That said, it’s definitely not impossible for this team to pull all that off. They show flashes of what this group is capable of. At some point they will put it together and start drawing some attention. I just know it.