Since we are effectively done with the non-conference season (minus the West Virginia game), now seems as good a time as any to take an accounting of where Purdue’s basketball program is at the moment. This post was inspired by a tweet I received a few days ago which succinctly summed up the feelings of a large portion of the Purdue fanbase: in it I read an acknowledgement of the call for patience for the team, with an undercurrent of frustration over this program inability to produce meaningful results on the national stage in a span of over three decades. There was no malice in the tweet, but the dismal results of this season have brought to the surface concerns that the program is not where many hoped – and expected – it to be. All completely valid feelings.
While of course every fan’s perspective of their team is a rich tapestry of emotions influenced by innumerable factors (tongue in cheek, sort of…) I have observed that there are essentially two camps that Purdue fans fall into these days: those who steadfastly recite the call for patience justified by the potential of the current squad and their faith in its coach despite the struggles of the team, and those who are sick of the call for patience and want some degree of accountability to extend to the bench and perhaps higher. Quit talking about abstract concepts like “potential” and produce at the level we keep being told they are capable of – don’t tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby.
Of course there are extremists on either side (this is beginning to feel like a political post in its execution): those who think Matt Painter walks on water, and those who think we should fire the bum (or should have let him go to Missouri). Neither opinion holds any value. Matt Painter is no sacred cow, and is as worthy of criticism (when it is warranted) as anyone. And it is hard to imagine Purdue firing Matt Painter (he of one Big 10 Tournament championship, one Big 10 regular season championship, three Big 10 coach of the year awards and six NCAA Tournament appearances in eight years) and finding someone better. His career at Purdue is not defined by a single season, and I am sure that anyone with any say in the matter is not even considering the possibility of replacing him.
So throwing out the extremes on each side, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to examine the state of the program. Personally, as a life-long Purdue basketball fan, and someone insane enough to pay the necessary hosting fees to write about this stuff in his free time, I have to say that I fall squarely in the first camp, those who continually preach patience. And here is why.
Achieving success in college basketball essentially boils down to two factors: how good of a coach do you have, and how talented your players are. While that is an incredibly obvious statement bordering on stupid, I was always taught that when engaging someone rhetorically it is important to establish a foundation from which to build your argument. I am confident that we can all agree: if you have a good coach and talented players you will probably have a successful team. Clearly there are a number of factors that influence each of those categories. Having a good coach means having a steady and capable group of assistant coaches and support staff members. Having talented players means having the ability to recruit said players (also part of coaching), having the necessary facilities to encourage (and accelerate) their development, and having players that are not just talented but who fit your system and are receptive to your coaching.
Thus it is easier to have faith in the process that this team is going through if you agree that Purdue has, or is developing, those two main factors. And if there is a clear (and sensible) path laid forth to address the deficiencies currently present in each factor, then the patience being asked of you as a fan is easier to justify. At which point the frustration over the results seen so far this season can be augmented (not necessarily replaced) by an acknowledgement that the program is headed in the right direction, and the success that all Purdue fans hope for is close, if you can stomach the disappointment in the interim. Unfortunately, this will not make watching this team score 44 points in a loss to Eastern Michigan any easier.
The two factors are not equal contributors to the success of your program, but they do influence each other (having an outstanding coach means you can get away with not having a team full of a future NBA first round draft picks; having said team of first round draft picks means you can away with a shakier coach. Obviously you need competence in both areas, but there is a relationship there). Excellence in both areas in how you win a national championship. So let’s start with coaching.
Can Matt Painter Win a Championship at Purdue?
This is a loaded question, with a number of difference facets; it is not as simple as “yes” or “no”. But there are a number of reasons to believe that the answer is yes.
- He has shown the ability to at least get close before. The 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons produced two of the best Purdue teams in recent memory, both of which were talented enough to establish themselves as championship material. Neither team, however, was able to make it past the Sweet Sixteen, which is undeniably disappointing. The 2008-09 team was perhaps preternaturally a contender. That team won 22 games in the regular season, and capped that effort with a Big 10 Tournament Championship. That momentum spurred thoughts of a deep tournament run, which would unfortunately not come to pass when they ran into #1 seed Connecticut, who would later advance to the Final Four. This was a talented team that felt like they were one year away from really establishing themselves as a contender. And indeed, the following season saw Purdue achieve a high degree of success, winning 26 games in the regular season, though they too lost in the Sweet Sixteen to eventual National Champion Duke. This of course was the season when Robbie Hummel tore his ACL for the first time. Though I will stop short of stating that his health could have assured a Final Four or National Championship (too many factors go into achieving either one of those goals), it is worthy of a mention. The season was certainly pulled off course with his injury, and would have ended differently one way or the other had that not happened. Regardless, those were Matt Painter’s teams – his players, his system. And they were firmly in the heart of the national picture. While the results of each season does not indicate a degree of “closeness”, the team was perched on the verge of doing something special. While “perched on the verge of doing something special” is in no way the same as “doing something special”, those were exciting teams with reason to believe that they were capable of advancing further than they did. And the following Robbie Hummel-less season in 2010-11 was also special, although that team crumbled at the end of the regular season.
- Even the best coaches have down years. Jim Calhoun (three time NCAA Champ) only won 15 games in his 7th season as head coach at UConn. In his 6th season at Syracuse Jim Boeheim won only 16 games, and he won an NCAA Championship in 2002-03. Gary Williams won the national title in 2001-02 after having won only 12 games in his fourth season at Maryland. Purdue may finish the conference season a few games under .500, but doing so would still put them squarely in the company of seasons produced by those coaching legends.
- Upgrades to Purdue’s facilities and the coaching staff’s contracts give them the tools they need to succeed. It is pretty bad when you have the former coach of your program bemoaning the cheapness of the athletic department in their support of the team. But with Matt Painter’s new contract, signed following the 2010-11 season (so he has coached less than two years into that contract), he now has better tools to recruit and coach his players. He was also able to negotiate better contracts for his staff, so he would no longer have to worry about a talented assistant leaving the program to take the same position at another university at a much more competitive salary. His recruiting budget was increased, and he has used that to establish a stronger recruiting presence both within the state of Indiana and outside its borders. Additionally, with the renovation of Mackey Arena completed in 2011 and the upgrades to the weightlifting and training centers, Purdue now has the facilities to catch up to the top of the Big 10 from an infrastructure standpoint. Investments such as those need time to bear fruit, and it is incumbent upon Coach Painter and his staff to turn that investment into results. But there is no doubt they have and will continue to make a positive difference in his efforts.
Additionally, you have his resume of awards and accomplishments (detailed above in an earlier paragraph) to go along with specific games that he has coached (Kansas during last year’s NCAA Tournament) and players that he has coached up (neither Carl Landry or E’Twaun Moore were interested in playing defense when they came to Purdue, both become NBA draft picks with reputations as tough defenders; JaJuan Johnson went from a skinny high risk/high reward prospect to a consensus First Team All-American; Ryne Smith developed into a pivotal starter during his four years at Purdue; Jacob Lawson has made a considerable jump from last year to this year. Obviously not every player has developed as one might hope, but generally players get better under Matt Painter) that give confidence that he is a talented coach. Which then leads us to the next question.
Is the Talent on the Team Championship-Worthy?
Eh…this year? Obviously not. But is a team being constructed that can achieve that goal? I would say that there are positive signs in that regard. Pointing to the potential on a team – talent that has not been realized yet – is a tiresome exercise in that results are all that really matter. College basketball is littered with high potential guys who wash out for various reasons. Having said that, you have to give guys time to develop. By their third year of playing you pretty much know what you have in a guy, but until then you have to make considerations for time to develop.
Looking at the freshmen on the roster, it is clear that they are talented. Matt Painter (a man not know for artificially building his players up) called Jay Simpson the biggest talent on the roster, and he is redshirting due to an on-going foot injury. Ronnie Johnson, as I showed in another post, is ahead of the pace set by Lewis Jackson, a player who ended up being a critical part of Purdue’s success the previous four years. Rapheal Davis showed what he is capable of in the Notre Dame game, scoring 19 points in the second half of that contest. Donnie Hale has had his moments, although he clearly needs to get stronger if he wants to be more of an impact player. And you can make the argument that AJ Hammons has been Purdue’s best player in the non-conference season, second only to perhaps Terone Johnson. The potential is there in the freshman class; we should know by the end of the season whether that potential can translate to results this season. They have improved over their first 12 games, and how they play during the tough conference schedule will tell Purdue fans a lot about how their expectations should be set for this team going forward.
But staying in the current season, if those players are so talented, then why has that not translated to results on the court? Why did this team lose to the likes of Eastern Michigan and barely squeak by Ball State and William & Mary? The answer, I believe, is found in the play of the upperclassmen.
If you look at per-game averages for the first 12 games and rank the contributions to the total by each class, you will see that the freshman are overwhelmingly the main statistical contributors this season.
That tables shows the percentage contributions by each class to Purdue’s per game averages. A note: these numbers are not adjusted for class size, i.e. the fact that the freshman class is much larger than the senior class will help skew the numbers in the freshman class’ favor. But that is part of the point; this team relies on their freshman to an overwhelming degree. Out of the seven statistical categories list in the above table, Purdue’s freshmen lead the team in six. The senior class leads in zero categories, and is second in only one. The junior class is second is six categories, bolstered by the play of Terone Johnson. And the sophomores are last or second to last in every category except in turnovers.
This tells us that we have a team that is highly reliant on their freshman to win games for them. And yes, the 2007 class did just that. But this is not the 2007 class (each member of that class was higher ranked by recruiting experts than the highest ranked member of the 2012 class) and they also had Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer to lead them and make major contributions. The upperclassmen this year have not provided that much-needed leadership, and have not been able to provide the statistical contributions this team needed when the freshmen struggled (obvious exception being Terone Johnson).
How does this translate to future seasons? Another year in the system never hurt anyone, and presumably Jay Simpson will be 100% recovered by then and ready to contribute; how much, we do not know, but Purdue fans are hopeful that he will start to make good on Coach Painter’s statement regarding his abilities. Additionally, Purdue has a very solid recruiting class coming in next year that addresses each of the primary concerns with this years squad (shooting – Kendall Stephens, second point guard + energy guy / leadership – Bryson Scott, glue guy + high ceiling prospect – Basil Smotherman). There are still some holes that you can project in next year’s team – it would be nice to have another shooter – but the team is getting a nice influx of talent for the second year in a row. And Terone Johnson will be a senior; he has gotten better each year under Matt Painter’s coaching; if that continues he could be a special player on a talented team.
There are certainly valid criticisms of the program, mostly centered around recruiting. Out of the four players brought in the 2009 recruiting class, only one will be done in May (DJ Byrd being the one; Kelsey Barlow was kicked off the team, Patrick Bade quit to play football, and Sandi Marcius redshirted and has not realized the potential Matt Painter saw in him as a recruit). That class being a miss has really hurt the team, as they do not have a solid group of seniors to both lead them and cover for their mistakes. And while 2010 and 2011 both brought players I am glad we have, there were also some high-profile recruiting misses in both classes. Back then, due to recruiting budget issues, Matt Painter would often key in on one major prospect that he really wanted and diverted his resources to his recruitment. And when Purdue missed (Tyler Zeller, Branden Dawson, etc…) he was left to try and get in late with other kids or formulate a new plan. The hope is that his increased recruiting resources and his new contract will prevent that from happening – more resources means being able to devote more time to recruiting more players and a break from having to pick one guy to focus your attention on. Still, the fact remains that Purdue was not able to capitalize on that recruiting class in a major way, which is how Purdue got to the point where their only point guard options are a true freshman, a former walk-on, and a converted shooting guard who still has a shooting guard mentality. It is also why Purdue was never able to find a suitable big man to pair up with JaJuan Johnson, or a wing to contribute in a meaningful way when Robbie Hummel got hurt. Or a reliable shooter from distance once Ryne Smith graduated. If you want to point those out at criticisms of Purdue’s program, I will not argue with you.
At the end of the day, all people really care about is getting the result they want. A Final Four, a national championship. And Purdue is not there yet, and have not been in over three decades. The Baby Boilers era gave Purdue a taste of what success on the nation stage feels like, but the inability of those teams to really make some noise is a crushing disappointment and a squandered opportunity. After failing to restock the cabinet, Purdue is now feeling the effects. They are a young, inexperienced team that has no choice but to learn on the job, with scarce upperclassmen leadership to steady the team when they get shaky. And when things do get shaky, and the wheels start to fall off, Purdue has not been able to lean on experienced players to right the ship and carry the team to victory. Which is why we have a team that can lose an eight point lead in 30 seconds, or a team that has already committed over half as many turnovers as they did for the whole season last year. All that adds up to a maddening team; one that I am confident has the ability to compete with some of the top teams in the Big 10, but also one that can only muster 44 points in a loss at Eastern Michigan (not to beat a dead horse…).
But again, I return to the two facets of college basketball: coaching and talent. If we are in the exact same spot next year as we are now, I think that is when we can start asking questions about Matt Painter. But by his record he has more than earned a little slack for this season as he tries to rebuild this team. And talent-wise, we have it. It is just lacking consistency and experience. As both of those factors develop, you will a much different team on the court. Part of the challenge of being a fan this year will be stomaching the losses while remaining positive about the future. There is enough surrounding the program to make me believe that its best days are still ahead of it, and enough talent on the team and coming in next year to make me think that this season is just a one-year blip, an outlier. Perhaps that is magical thinking, but I think I have valid reasons to believe so. The rest of this year promises no relief from the frustration that plagued Purdue in the non-conference season. But I am convinced that if Purdue fans are able to keep the faith and support their team, they will be rewarded with a bright future.