Big Ten basketball previews: Purdue Boilermakers

Note: I wrote this on Sunday before Purdue's opener vs. Howard, so if anything crazy happened then and this preview doesn't mention it, that's why.

All previous Big Ten previews

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Hammer and Rails

Last season

The Boilers came out of the gates very strong, notching impressive non-conference wins over Tennessee and West Virginia and climbing to #3 in the country at 14-0. But they hit a rough patch in Big Ten play, losing 3 straight games: at Wisconsin (understandable), home vs. Ohio State when Evan Turner went crazy (understandable), and at Northwestern (discouraging). The losing streak saw them plummet in the rankings and left their Big Ten title hopes in serious jeopardy, but Matt Painter rallied the troops and reeled off 10 consecutive conference wins, including road wins over Ohio State and Michigan State. In the 10th win however, star wing Robbie Hummel suffered a torn ACL, and Purdue was clearly not the same team without him, promptly losing at home to Michigan State. The Boilers did manage to hold onto a share of the Big Ten regular season title, but they failed to defend their Big Ten tournament title, as they were embarrassed by Minnesota in the semifinals, losing by 27 and scoring a tournament record low 11 first half points.

Still, Purdue earned a #4 seed in the NCAAs, and silenced their many doubters by advancing to the Sweet 16, defeating Siena and Texas A&M before falling to eventual champion Duke.

Players not returning

The biggest loss for Purdue is certainly Robbie Hummel, who re-tore his ACL on the first day of fall practices. The whole situation is really sad, as by all accounts Hummel is a great kid and an excellent representative of college basketball, and it sucks as fans that we won't get to see him play this season. He was an outstanding wing player who seemingly had no weaknesses; he could score inside, score outside, shoot free throws, rebound, defend, pass, everything. Obviously, Purdue will really miss him.

The Boilers also lose two senior starters from last season: guards Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer. Grant struggled with his outside shot for large parts of last season, but he came on strong at the end of the year and was a big part of their Sweet 16 run. He was also an underrated defensive player, as he used his long 6'4" frame to bother opposing guards.

Kramer has always been a polarizing figure around the Big Ten. The only player to ever be named to the All-Big Ten defensive team four times, he was beloved by Purdue fans for his hustle and outstanding defense but hated by opposing teams; he was a frequent target of abuse whenever Purdue went on the road. Anyone who read this blog last year knows I've been a long-time Kramer hater; he was cocky, he flopped for charges, he stomped on Indiana's logo after a road win, and was just generally a pain in the ass. But really, the reason why he was so hated was because he almost always backed up his cockiness and frequently turned losses into wins due to his defense and sheer will to win. His finest career moment came in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament vs. Texas A&M, when he took over the game down the stretch and led a depleted Purdue team to victory pretty much by himself. I could no longer hate on Kramer after that game; his play was so gutsy that I'm told Kramer had to contract with a team of oxen after the game to help carry his gigantic balls off the court. 

Unfortunately for me, I was punished by Kramer and the sports gods for taking far too long to get on the Kramer bandwagon. In Purdue's Sweet 16 game vs. Duke, I wagered heavily on the under, and it looked like a lock as both teams were struggling to score. There was less than a minute to go, Duke was up by 13, and I just needed the teams to dribble out the clock. But Kramer had other ideas; everyone else in the building knew the game was over, but Kramer refused to quit and gave two fouls in the final minute, causing there to be more possessions and more points, and I lost the under by half a point. Serves me right for taking way longer than everyone else to recognize Kramer's talents; he could very well be the best defense/energy guy in the history of the Big Ten, and Purdue will really miss him this season.

Backcourt

Purdue returns one of the top guards in the Big Ten, senior E'Twaun Moore. He led Purdue in scoring at 16 points per game last season and earned first team all-conference honors. Moore is an excellent scorer and shooter, and has a knack for hitting big shots late in games, most notably during Purdue's win at Michigan State last season. One minor concern is that he struggled after Hummel went down last season, hitting just 36% of his twos and 28% of his threes, but that was over a fairly small sample size and there's no reason to think he won't have another big year.

Another likely starter is junior Lewis Jackson, an undersized (5'9") point guard. He posted an outstanding 3.5 to 1 assist to turnover ratio last year, and uses his quickness and toughness to be a strong on-ball defender despite his height. The big question for Jackson though is his perimeter shooting; he shot an ugly 34% from the field last year, hitting only 40% of his twos and 1 of his 10 threes. By the end of the season, teams were playing off him and giving him the outside shot and he still couldn't knock it down. He will get plenty of minutes due to his ball-handling and defense, but he'll be a liability on offense unless he's improved his shooting.

Behind Moore and Jackson, Purdue has plenty of options, but all of them are unproven. Sophomore D.J. Byrd was a highly touted recruit, but underwhelmed in his freshman season, scoring just 2 points in 18 Big Ten games, although he did contribute 10 points in the NCAA tournament win over Texas A&M. Byrd will certainly get playing time due to his athleticism and defensive abilities, but he needs to improve a lot on last year's ugly 30% field goal shooting. Sophomore Kelsey Barlow is another excellent athlete with potential, but he needs to improve his outside shooting, free throw shooting (an ugly 27 of 58 last year), and turnover rate (4 per 40 minutes last year). Junior Ryne Smith is a 3-point specialist who hit just 29% of his threes last season, and junior John Hart also struggled from the perimeter, shooting 33% overall and 31% from three.

Purdue also adds two freshman guards, Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson (no relation). Terone is the higher-rated prospect, he was a 4-star recruit and can reportedly fill it up. That should earn him plenty of playing time; as noted above, there's a dearth of scoring guards behind Moore. Anthony is a lanky 6'3" 175 pounds, and should also get some playing time.

Frontcourt

Purdue has one of the top big men in the country in senior center JaJuan Johnson (no relation to Terone or Anthony). He averaged 15 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks per game last season, good enough to second team All-Big Ten honors. The national media is certainly expecting big improvement from Johnson, as he's on just about every All-American first team I've seen, and Hubert Davis went so far as to call him the best player in the country. At times last season, Johnson certainly played like an All-American; he destroyed West Virginia's athletic front line in a non-conference game and in the Boilers win at Michigan State, he abused Draymond Green to the point where you might have thought poor Draymond was auditioning for the lead role in Precious. However, he didn't make the All-Big Ten team last year largely due to him pulling a disappearing act in Purdue's three game losing streak in Big Ten play, low-lighted by his performance against Northwestern where he was outplayed by Luka Mirkovic (no really, he was). The problem for Johnson is that he occasionally gets too perimeter-happy and starts jacking up 15 foot fadeaways rather than using his superior size and strength to overpower people inside. For Purdue to contend for the conference title, Johnson will have to dominate consistently and be a 20 points, 10 rebounds per night type player, and he's more than capable of doing that if he remembers that he's nearly unstoppable when he attacks the rim.

When Johnson came out of the game last year, he was usually replaced by Patrick Bade. I haven't seen a drop-off in talent that severe since Newsradio brought in Jon Lovitz to replace the late Phil Hartman (and everyone take a moment and pour out some Rocket Fuel malt liquor for the great Bill McNeil). Bade was an over-matched freshman who really could have used a redshirt year, but he was the only available backup big man and Matt Painter had no choice but to throw him into the fire. The results weren't pretty; Bade shot just 36% from the field, had more fouls (54) than points (51), and committed 19 turnovers against just 3 assists. The reports out of West Lafayette indicate that Bade has lost weight and improved his perimeter jump shot, allowing him to be more of a wing player and take over Hummel's starting spot. Now obviously he won't be anywhere close to Hummel levels, but if he can be merely serviceable, that would be a gigantic improvement from last year and a solid boost for Purdue.

Rounding out the rotation are two freshmen, Sandi Marcius and Travis Carroll. Marcius, a 6'9, 260 pound center from Croatia, redshirted last season due to injury. After watching a seemingly endless string of disappointing Balkan big men come through Northwestern, I don't have high hopes for Marcius, but he will certainly add some much-needed size behind Johnson. Carroll is a 6'9 post player who was rated a three-star recruit, and will compete with Marcius for the backup center spot.

Expectations

This was supposed to be the year Purdue finally made it to the Final Four behind the senior trio of Hummel, Moore and Johnson, but the injury to Hummel was a crushing blow and clearly keeps Purdue from being a realistic national title contender. Moore and Johnson still form a fantastic duo, but there are just too many question marks around them to expect this team to contend for a Big Ten title, let alone a national title. Many Purdue supporters have argued that since Purdue reached the Sweet 16 without Hummel a season ago, they should be picked no lower than 16th in the country this year, but it's not nearly that simple. Purdue doesn't just lose Hummel; they also have to replace two other starters in Kramer and Grant, and without Kramer's heroics there's no way Purdue would have made the Sweet 16 last year. There are huge questions as to who will score the ball besides Moore and Johnson, as this excellent Big Ten Geeks article explains. We got a sneak peek at Purdue sans Hummel last season, and the results on offense weren't pretty; Purdue scored a mere 0.91 points per possession, which would have been last in the Big Ten. I'm certainly not suggesting they will be the worst offense in the conference, as those numbers from last season came over a small sampling and Painter didn't have time to re-adjust his offense, but the Boilers just don't have the offensive depth to match up with the Big Ten's elite. Another potential problem is on the interior; with Hummel out of the lineup, Purdue got dominated inside whenever they faced teams with big, athletic front lines. Marcius and Carroll will help out, but it's asking a lot of two moderately hyped freshmen to bang inside with the Big Ten's best. Defensively, they will still be excellent, maybe not quite as good as last year when KenPom had them as the nation's 3rd best defensive team, but still very good.

Playing the "we're being disrespected" card is a favorite of many Purdue supporters, and it's come out in full force the past few weeks as various national analysts rank the Boilers in the #15 to #25 range nationally and 4th or 5th in the Big Ten. I'd counter by saying it's a sign of great respect that despite losing 3 starters from last year, including an All-American in Hummel and the Big Ten's best defensive player in Kramer, people still think Purdue is a top 25 team, but that's just me. Look, in a lot of other years, Purdue could still be right there for the conference title, but Michigan State and Ohio State are top 5 teams, and Illinois returns everyone plus adds an excellent recruiting class. And while Purdue probably has more talent than Wisconsin, the Badgers finish in the top 4 every single year under Bo Ryan, so I'm not picking against that happening. Purdue is still a top 25 team, so this certainly won't be a lost season, but I just can't see them contending for a conference championship.

SoP Prediction: 5th in the Big Ten, #4-#7 seed in the NCAAs.

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