Purdue basketball season preview
Even as Purdue lost 1 starter, then another, to transfer during the offseason, they were unwavering in their feeling that they could plug their personnel holes quickly.
Matt Painter has done so, filling in with players who potentially have higher ceilings yet are far less experienced than the departed. What is left is a sense that while the Boilermakers are reloading, they could see vast improvements by the time March rolls around.
There’s legitimacy to the argument. Gone are Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern — they transferred to BYU and Howard, respectively — but for those 2, last season was inconsistent at best, as they struggled in their transition from role players on the Elite Eight team 2 seasons ago to key cogs. Haarms let his frustration over playing time affect his performance, and Eastern struggled to find his niche. As a result, Purdue slumped, finishing only 16-15 overall, 9-11 in the Big Ten, a record that very likely would have left them out of the NCAA Tournament had the pandemic not nuked the event before it started.
Now, Purdue has a lot to prove.
Junior Trevion Williams, who was eating away at Haarms’ minutes last season, is a centerpiece, one who could turn in an All-Big Ten performance if he finds more consistency. Classmate Eric Hunter Jr. gives the Boilermakers a versatile playmaker on the perimeter, but he’s out 6-8 weeks after knee surgery.
Although Purdue returns a couple of other starters — juniors Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Wheeler — each has something more to show as well. That’s particularly true of Wheeler, who was a dynamic 6th man 2 years ago but a pedestrian starter last season.
Painter is going to have one of his youngest rosters in years, perhaps dating back to the “Baby Boiler” days of 2007-08, with Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. Currently, Purdue’s roster includes 5 freshmen, 3 sophomores and 4 juniors, without a senior.
Each of those freshmen — two redshirts in Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis, plus rookies Ethan Morton, Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey — will be counted on to play this season.
Following is a breakdown of the Boilermakers.
In his first 2 seasons in West Lafayette, Williams has shown moments of absolute brilliance. He burst on the scene during a 3-game stretch as a freshman 2 seasons ago, when he totaled 38 points and 36 rebounds against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers. But stamina was a problem, and Williams faded as the season neared an end.
The 6-foot-10, 265-pounder was more consistent in 2019-20, becoming an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten after averaging 11.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. But as good as that was, Williams’ ceiling is higher.
He’s smooth in the post, quicker and lighter on his feet than what should be expected from a man his size. And he’s capable of stepping out, hitting the 15-footer and dribbling to the basket, too. When he’s on, it’s a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Now, Williams only needs to prove he can be The Man day in and day out. It’s the only question remaining.
If the Boilermakers are to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they need all their freshmen to be productive. Ivey, the son of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey, might get the most opportunities early.
Well, Purdue is not only without Hunter at the start of the season, but fellow rookie Morton is likely going to have to be eased back into the rotation. He missed much of preseason practice after having mono. The minutes are there for Ivey to pick up.
A combo guard, Ivey is a smooth, versatile scorer who will help right away.
Last season was a disjointed, frustrating mess, particularly considering where Purdue had come from only months before, on the brink — literally less than a second — of the Final Four. But the pieces didn’t mesh, and Painter fought to find combinations that would help the Boilermakers rally in the 2nd half of the season.
But he never found it. It’s hard to argue that Purdue’s departures were good, but they might turn out to be so. Painter can push his young group into larger roles sooner, and while the Boilermakers might suffer initial pains because of it, they might be better in the long run.
It seems almost blasphemous to ask of a Matt Painter-coached team, but it must be done: Can these Boilermakers defend? It’s a legitimate concern. Without the shot-blocking presence of Haarms and the superior perimeter defense of Eastern, Purdue is taking a significant step back. Add in that Hunter, who could be out up to 2 months, is the best returning perimeter defenseman, and it compounds the situation.
But Purdue has athletes on the exterior who either will buy into Painter’s defensive philosophy or they won’t play. It’s more of a challenge on the interior. Williams is a superior offensive player, so he’s going to play as many minutes as he can handle. But he’s not a rim protector. And Wheeler, the projected starter at the 4, has been a lackadaisical defender at times during his past 2 seasons. Maybe the massive Edey (7-4, 285) can provide help, but that’s not an easy ask for a freshman big man.
Purdue got a break with the unveiling of the 20-game Big Ten schedule, in which the Boilermakers’ single-plays are league favorites Illinois (road) and Iowa, Wisconsin (home), Michigan (home), Northwestern (home) and Rutgers (road). Five of those 6, the exception being Northwestern, are expected to finish in the top half of the league, perhaps the top third.
The Boilermakers should be one of those teams as well, likely a step behind Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin but in the mix with the next group of 5 or 6 teams.
As we sit on the eve of the season, Purdue is projected as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, likely sitting just a shade on the good side. The Boilermakers, as of now, do not play a Top-25 team in the shortened non-conference season, so much of their résumé-building will come in the Big Ten.
Something to watch: Mackey Arena is such a difficult place for opponents, one of the loudest venues in the country. But will Purdue’s home edge be neutralized?