With basketball season not too far back in the rear view mirror and a long way to go until fall camp, I thought this might be a good time to take a look at the state of the programs around the Big Ten. These are interesting times in the Big Ten, what with Michigan seemingly having established itself as a legitimate Big Ten (and national) force, teams like Indiana, Illinois and Purdue being down and Wisconsin's transformation from stereotypical grind-it-out basketball to a team that was thoroughly enjoyable to watch this past season.
So, without further delays, we'll start this week with one of the aforementioned programs experiencing hard times like a Dickens novel: the Purdue Boilermakers.
So, what happened this season?
The Boilermakers finished 15-17 (5-13), good for last in the Big Ten. This season marked the first time in 106 years that both Purdue basketball and football finished last in the conference in the same season, a truly startling piece of trivia.
Purdue entered conference play with three losses, to Oklahoma State and bad Washington State and Butler teams. Matt Painter's squad began Big Ten play with an 8-point loss against Ohio State (giving up 78 points at home in that one against a Buckeyes team not known for its offense) and a three-point defeat at Minnesota.
However, they followed that with a trio of wins (Nebraska, at Illinois and Penn State)--maybe not the toughest competition, especially as Nebraska wasn't officially NEBRASKETBALL at that point, but a winning streak is a winning streak.
Unfortunately for Boilers fans, it would be the last winning streak of the season. They would win just twice more, period, on Feb. 5 against Minnesota in a triple overtime affair and an 18-point rivalry thumping of the Hoosiers on Feb. 15.
As many fans know, the Boilers nearly knocked off the Wolverines at home, in addition to giving the Badgers a somewhat competitive game at the Kohl Center on March 5 and nearly bouncing the Buckeyes in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
Other than those relative bright spots, the months of January, February and March were as bleak as the winter Midwestern sky for Purdue.
- Terone and Ronnie Johnson led the way for Purdue with 12.0 and 10.8 ppg, respectively. Big man A.J. Hammons checked in at third with 10.8 ppg himself, and 7.4 rpg. For a team that was generally putrid from beyond the arc, gunner Kendall Stephens shot a fantastic 37 percent from downtown on a team-high 173 attempts.
- Purdue ranked 12th in free throw percentage and 8th in three-point field goal percentage during Big Ten play. They ranked 7th in points per possession at 1.0 even.
- They didn't value the ball--they finished third to last in the conference, behind only Indiana and Minnesota, with a turnover percentage of 18.4 percent.
- What did they do well? PU finished third in defensive rebounding percentage and second in offensive rebounding percentage. Surprise, having a 7-footer helps in this department (but more on him later). They ranked 5th in block percentage, which, again, 7-footer.
- Blocks notwithstanding, Purdue didn't do the Purdue things defensively that have made them a true pest of a team to play in the past. They ranked 11th in steal percentage and turnover percentage; only Wisconsin, not known for pressuring or looking for turnovers, really, forced turnovers a smaller percentage of the time than did Purdue.
Roster Shakeup (transfers, NBA entries, incoming recruits, etc.)
"The system that they played didn't fit me very well," Johnson said. "There was a lot of subbing and it was hard to get into the flow of the game. I felt like I needed to play through my mistakes like every other guard in the Big Ten was."
Recently, he landed at Houston, with former Indiana head coach Kelvin Sampson (of course).
On the bright side, the somewhat mercurial Hammons is back for his junior season, and will now almost certainly have to be the literal and figurative centerpiece of the squad. Purdue's trip to Ann Arbor was a perfect example of Hammons's ability to both dominate and disappear in the same game; the big man scored four points in the first half, only to explode in the first 11:30 of the second with 12 points on dunks and layups.
But, one would think a junior Hammons will level out those peaks and valleys and grow into a more consistent player.
Otherwise, Stephens, Basil Smotherman and Bryson Scott and Rapheal Davis are all back. Stephens is an intriguing player, but 77 percent of his shot attempts came from downtown; if he can diversify his game a little bit (think Zak Irvin), he could be a real player for the Boilers. With both Johnsons gone, they certainly have some production to fill, even with Hammons returning.
As for recruits, it's always hard to tell but Purdue did reel in 4-star Isaac Haas, who stands at seven feet two inches tall. Hass boasted a pretty solid offer list, featuring UCLA, Wichita State and Virginia. Throw him into the mix with Hammons and Purdue's interior defense, at the very least, will continue to be formidable.
Shortly before point guard Ronnie Johnson's transfer announcement, the Boilers landed a commitment from the 5-foot-10 3-star P.J. Thompson, continuing the trend of undersized Purdue point guards. Scott and Thompson will run the show this season for Purdue.
Boy, I don't know. The consensus seems to be that one more bad season means Painter is done in West Lafayette, and it's sort of strange how this all happened. Purdue went to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2009/10, and won a tourney game the next two seasons, too.
However, a third straight season without a tournament appearance would have to be the death knell for the Painter era.
The only quick fix, really, was a monster recruiting class, and as good as Purdue has been in the past, they're not really the type of program to land multiple big time recruits per class.
Haas is a good piece to add to the frontcourt mix, but who knows how polished he'll be on the offensive end, if at all.
Purdue is really up against it. For one, Hammons needs to make the leap from monstrously talented but inconsistent to actual college stardom. Frank Kaminsky will still be around this season, but there's really no reason why Hammons shouldn't be able to challenge him for First Team All-Big Ten. I really believe that.
But, that hasn't always been there for him, and I'm not sure why. More importantly, Purdue won't be going anywhere until something is done about the defense--it all starts on the perimeter. Purdue was once a team you dreaded playing because you knew you'd have to work on every single possession just to get a halfway decent look. That hasn't been the case of late, and the aforementioned defensive numbers bear that out.
But Chris Kramer isn't walking through that door, so I just don't know. Outside of Hammons, depending on Stephens to go off all the time from three-point land is not exactly a stable offensive philosophy.
Where will the offense come? I'm not sure, and perhaps that is the root of Painter's hockey-esque lineup blender. Ideally, you don't want to be playing that many combinations (or that many players, period), but there might not be any other options.
As we sit here in mid-May, I'm not sure that a tournament appearance is in the cards, or even if significant improvement sans a ticket to the Big Dance would be enough to save Painter's job. The Boilers can take solace in the fact that the Big Ten should take a step back this season, but wins will still be hard to find. Wisconsin is Wisconsin, Michigan has solidified itself as a legitimate Big Ten contender (even with NBA departures in mind), Nebraska finished in the top four this past season (!), Northwestern will continue to grit its way to surprising wins, Minnesota just won the NIT, Illinois showed promise at the end of this past season...not to mention Ohio State and Michigan State, who will still be tough, despite serious personnel departures.
I am wrong all the time about many things, but, for now, the situation in West Lafayette does not seem conducive to success in 2014-15. With that said, Big Ten basketball is full of surprises each year: maybe Purdue will be one of them.