I took a moment after the game and before I wrote this to reflect on the season so far. It’s obviously been very up-and-down, but as a whole, things seemed to be trending positive. There were some frustrating moments, but there was also an increasing number of hopeful moments as well.
And that is why the game against Northwestern seemed like such a step backwards. There was just so little to draw from this game that was positive. AJ Hammons had a great statistical game, going for 19 and 13, but he also had three turnovers, didn’t start because he was late getting to the bus this morning, and gave a rather lax effort on defense, against a front-court that he should have dominated. I suppose you have to take the bad with the good though.
The rest of the team though, I’m not sure what to say.DJ Byrd did ok, hitting four of his seven 3-point attempts to account for all 12 of his points. Anthony Johnson had 11, but it took him 11 shots to get there.
You can’t just look at the box score if you truly want to understand what happened against Northwestern today. Because the truly concerning aspects of today’s game have nothing to do with poor shooting (whether it be from the field, from 3-point land, or from the free throw line), or the poor defense, or anything that could be reflected in a box score. What is truly concerning about how this team is performing revolves around the intangibles: teamwork, effort, and communication.
This team does not appear to be connected; they’re all reading from different pages of the script. The offense is atrocious; the offense appears to revolve around someone – most notably lately, Terone Johnson – dribbling with his head down towards the basket and then chucking a floater up in the general vicinity of the rim. Terone does it, Ronnie does it, AJ does it, Rapheal Davis does it. There’s no spacing, no movement, no communication. At the height of the Baby Boilers era you could hear guys talking to each other. Not anymore. The offense has become little more than whoever has the ball trying to go 1-on-5.
Effort, however, remains the most concerning problem this team has. In particular, a lack of effort on defense. Northwestern shot 11-26 from behind the 3-point line today, which is excellent. But frankly, Purdue didn’t make it hard on them at all. No one attacked the ball, no one fought through screens…Northwestern’s hot start was due almost entirely to a Purdue defense that couldn’t be bothered to play tough, disciplined defense.
Barring an unheard of miracle that would surely warrant its own ESPN “30 for 30″ special, the NCAA Tournament is not happening this year. And the way this team showed up against the Wildcats, it’s hard to imagine the NIT being in play either. It does not get any easier from here out; next up is Penn State, but after that, every remaining team on Purdue’s schedule is capable of beating them (perhaps Penn State is too, you don’t want to look past any conference opponent, but they’re kind of a mess right now). This isn’t high school anymore; this isn’t AAU, where you can lose and then turn around later that day and play again. This is major college basketball. You are no longer the most skilled, most talented, strongest, most exciting player out there. It’s more than just being physically tough, you have to be mentally tough as well. And so far, Purdue has shown themselves to be as mentally soft as a bowl of ice cream.
The upperclassmen have’t helped either. Mental toughness is a sign of leadership, and when I watch a team that looks like they couldn’t care less whether they win or lose, not to mention try hard, I see that as a failure of leadership. The seniors – specifically DJ Byrd – and the juniors – specifically Terone Johnson – need to be the leaders of this team. And they clearly have abdicated their responsibilities in that regard.
And that also falls at the feet of the coaching staff as well. It’s their job to teach these young men how to be leaders, and to get everyone to buy into their system. And the fact that the team hasn’t reflects on the coaching staff, including Matt Painter.
But despite all that, this is still not the time to give up on the team. Yes, the team isn’t performing well, and yes the primary reason for that seems to be a maturity problem, perhaps one more pervasive than we originally thought. And of course, player immaturity is not something that you can just tweak a few things and fix that easily. But still, this is a team that has some talented pieces, and this is a coaching staff that has earned the right to a poor season without getting ridden out on a rail. Things are not perfect, clearly, and maybe right now they’re not even good. But this is still our team, and they’re still worth tuning in to, showing up to cheer for, and rooting on. Expressing displeasure at where things are right now is certainly appropriate. But at this point the program could use some support. Jump off the bandwagon now and there might not be room for you when things do turn around.