Purdue basketball: Boilermakers poised for deep tournament run
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Fair warning. Beware the Boilermakers.
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By now, everyone should see Purdue coming, and not just because two 7-footers are platooning in the post. There is the 10-0 record, with every victory by at least 12 points. There's the 33.1 field-goal percentage defense – second best in the nation, despite Big Ten defender of the year Rapheal Davis missing four games with a sprained knee. These are the numbers of dominance. The Boilermakers have trailed 15:36 all season, out of 400. Their biggest deficit has been four points. The Purdue gap in bench points is 371-140, partly because there is a second team all-Big Ten center who hasn't yet been able to crack the starting lineup.
So Purdue’s momentum continues to build, with a series of blowouts and one clear message: The hard times are over.
Just two years ago, the Boilermakers had endured their second consecutive losing season and went 5-13 in the Big Ten. That had to stop. So what got their attention?
``I think it was coming in last place in the Big Ten,’’ Davis said. ``That’s embarrassing. It was tough going to class, knowing you just lost three games in a row, everybody telling you you’re not any good.
``Everybody looked in the mirror and changed what they were doing wrong. The guys who didn’t want to, they were out of here.’’
They call it a change in a culture, easy to say, more difficult to pull off.
``It’s really hard,’’ coach Matt Painter said. ``Normally, when you get into that predicament as a coach in today’s society, you lose your job. So we were very fortunate we were able to reshuffle the deck.’’
Purdue’s high command did not waver. The school has had only two coaches – Gene Keady and Painter – in 36 years. But there were some inevitable restless fan questions. Why’s a program with six consecutive NCAA Tournament trips suddenly sitting home in March after losing 12 of its last 14 games?
It had Painter -- coaching his alma mater since 2005 -- doing some soul searching. He needed more commitment and more off-season work from his players, and they had to buy what he was selling. It began to pay off last season when the Boilermakers went 21-13 and returned to the NCAA Tournament. Now they have look of a team intending to storm deep into March.
“We live in a society, not just a basketball culture, where when things go wrong, it’s someone else’s fault,’’ Painter said. ``At times that is true, it is somebody else’s fault. But I played for Coach Keady, and I was Bruce Weber’s assistant (at Southern Illinois) and when things go wrong, it’s your fault. It’s a `we mentality.’ It was my fault as the head coach, but each individual guy in your program’s got to feel the same way about that. We had some guys step up and stay.’’
Davis, for instance, now the heart and soul. ``He’s done the things necessary when the coaches aren’t around, being about Purdue winning, and that’s it,’’ Painter said.
Or 7-foot A.J. Hammons, a mercurial Boilermaker, who has wandered in and out of Painter’s doghouse, but, at the end of the day, is an all-conference force in the middle. Right now, he’s coming off the bench for 7-2 sophomore Isaac Haas, who leads the team in scoring.
While Davis healed, Purdue was doing all this damage with a starting lineup of four sophomores, plus prize freshman catch 6-9 recruit Caleb Swanigan, who had four double-doubles in his first 10 college games. ``He has an unbelievable ceiling,’’ Painter said. ``He could be a special, special player here.’’
Imagine dealing with Swanigan, and a brace of 7-footers. Purdue doesn’t have a front court, it has a skyline. ``You feel good you’re able to get a rebound or a stop, and next thing you know, there’s a sub and here it goes all over again, another fresh big,’’ IUPUI coach Jason Gardner was saying the other night, after those three did a tag team on his Jaguars for 35 points, 20 rebounds, and 12-for-17 shooting.
The Haas-Hammons situation is particularly intriguing. Hammons started 75 games his first three years and is among the most decorated Boilermakers, but was out the first two games this season for some unannounced misdeed. Since he returned, he has been coming off the bench, with Haas playing so well. Hammons was just named Big Ten player of the week, as a reserve.
So it’s a platoon, for now. A very productive platoon. For eight games, they’ve combined to average 25.75 points and shoot 63.3 percent.
``It’s hard for him now because he doesn’t play quite as much, because Haas has improved so much,’’ Painter said of Hammons. ``So as a tandem, it puts us in a tough spot.
``They understand it, and we will continue to split time if they’re both really consistent. But if one is clearly better than the other in a particular game, I’ll go with that person. It’s a great problem to have, but I don’t look at it (as a problem). Through the course of battling and fighting, somebody gets injured, somebody gets in foul trouble.’’
Bottom line, Purdue has a capable 7-footer on the floor all the time. Not many teams can say that. All the better if no one grows testy about playing time.
``They get along as well as anybody on our team,’’ Davis said. ``They don’t bicker, they’re not jealous of each other and the time they get. When those two are getting along, it helps the whole team. They’re our horses out there, so we’re going to feed them.’’
Purdue is on a roll, and the last-place finish seems forever ago, even if has been only 21 months.
``Now I feel like we have the right guys,’’ Painter said. ``I’m not fighting anybody on our team. There’s not a lot of coaches in America who can say that.’’
We’ll know more about the Boilermakers soon. They close December with Butler, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. But even the softer portion of the non-conference schedule had a purpose. Painter wanted to see if his team remembered last season, when Purdue blinked at home against North Florida and Gardner-Webb.
``We learned some hard lessons,’’ he said. ``Those games probably cost us a seed in March.’’
No blinking so far this year, just a non-stop surge to date, and Davis could speak for what has gone on.
``We got Purdue back on the map.’’