Matt Painter will be keeping his job this year, and he may even have it for the next three, at the least. Ten weeks into his third assignment at Purdue, there is a palpable buzz in West Lafayette — and it’s no fluke: This team, with literally the youngest starting five in the nation, are bound to disrupt top teams in the Big Ten this year and potentially be the team to beat in years to come.
After ups and downs in the pre-conference season (losing to Wofford at home; beating Louisville on the road), the Boilers are starting to show signs of consistency by making some big plays when it counts.
The first real evidence came in the form of what was almost the biggest upset of the Big Ten season thus far: Purdue brought Tom Izzo’s Spartans to their knees at the Breslin Center last Tuesday, and did it without their star freshman, Robbie Hummel. After the game, Izzo even quipped, “The toughest team on the court lost tonight, and that team was not us.”
Purdue, up by three with just two minutes to play, lost by the same margin in the end, but in the process, they woke up the conference to the notion that these talented freshmen only play like kids for a little while, especially under a bench coach like Painter. The Boilers took their enthusiasm into a showdown with a very formidable opponent in Ohio State on Jan. 12. Granted, the game was played in the familiar confines of Mackey Arena, but the Buckeyes brought in likely Big Ten player of the year, Jamar Butler, and a nineteen game conference winning streak dating back to January of last year.
After trailing at half by seven points, the Boilers rallied to come back and dismantle the Buckeyes. Big wins like this — where they defend their home court and improve their RPI — will go a long way towards an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
After sixteen games, the freshman are starting to play to their potential (with hiccups here and there) and the sophomores (Keaton Grant, Marcus Green and Chris Kramer) are finally starting to play like veterans despite their youth.
What will it take to get them to the Dance? Let’s look at three MUSTs for the Boilers:
1. Keaton Grant MUST shoot at least 40% from the arc from here on out. After coming out of his shell early this year, Grant seems almost like genuine three-point-threat in the making — if he can figure out how to create open looks, that is.
2. JaJuan Johnson and Nemanja Calasan MUST put up 20 points and 10 rebounds a night, at a minimum. Only teams with a solid inside game can truly exploit even the best defenses. It’s true: Purdue is youthful and has yet to show that they can bang in the paint consistently, but the talent is there. Matt Painter has to realize it.
3. E’Twaun Moore MUST start playing like the guard that beat Eric Gordon in the Indiana State Championship last year. He’s a talented young guard, but his confidence is low. With only Tarrance Crump on the squad to offer any mentorship, Moore is going to have to look within to find his stride.
Let’s see what’s on tap for this week:
Season Record: 83–22
Last Week’s Record: 8–2
Big Ten Record: 15–4
TUESDAY, JANUARY 15
Michigan State 78
Ohio State 74
Penn State 67
THURSDAY, JANUARY 17
SATURDAY, JANUARY 19
SUNDAY, JANUARY 20
Penn State 69
Michigan State 61