Monday, January 23, 2012

Do The Boilers Have A Leadership Problem?

Step forward, young men...

Coming into this season, we were excited about the prospect of this Senior class leading the Boilers for '11 & '12. Ryne Smith's ability to get under the opponent's skin, Lewis Jackson's hard-nosed bulldog mentality and Rob Hummel's mental toughness and ability to do so many things well seem like a great foundation for a basketball team. However, poor conditioning, inconsistent effort and nagging injuries have put Painter's squad in a position that's unfamiliar to Boilers (at least during the past few seasons). Things are very uncertain as the home stretch of the season begins to come into view...and this team's identity is hazy at best.

Speaking with my esteemed co-editor this weekend, I noticed that he was more irritated than usual (not enough fiber, perhaps) about Purdue basketball. We discussed the lack of effort at certain times this season, how the team looks listless at times, etc. It got me to thinking the above headlined question -- does Purdue basketball have a leadership problem?

It's a question that would have seemed unthinkable in recent seasons. Purdue has soft-spoken but definite leaders in recent years. JJ and E'Twaun weren't in-your-face guys, but they were true leaders-by-example. When the game was on the line, those guys wanted the ball and more often than not, they came through. There was also a fire in their bellies, as evidenced by a number of times when Moore would be seething even after a game for something that happened on the floor. One of b-dowd's favorite Moore videos was a clip posted to YouTube after the Boilers' won a tourney game and all the way up the tunnel, E'Twaun was quietly dag-nabbiting how a guy had swiped him. Easy to admire.

As this season dawned, we openly expressed our concerns about the fact that too much might be expected (or needed) from Rob Hummel. The guy was coming back from two ACL injuries, hadn't played a game in 20 months and was now the most seasoned veteran on a team with lots of young guys. He was going to be looked to by his coach, his teammates, the media...even a guy who represents Purdue and the Big Ten and, in the words of some, what's right about college basketball.

The season then got rolling and I know that I, for one, was pleasantly surprised at how well Rob slipped back into character. He shot well, rebounded aggressively, led the team in scoring average and generally seemed like the leader and captain he was needed to be. Rob was like a coach on the floor and there is no doubt that Coach Painter relied on him as such. This was never more clear than in a home game where Anthony Johnson appeared to miss an assignment and then, when barked at by Rob on the court, mouthed off right back to #4. Hummel and Painter appeared positively furious with AJ and he sat for some time, the incident even appearing to impact his playing time in the next game or two.

However, also early on there were concerning signs. Rob wasn't hitting his free throws at his previous 90% rate. He was getting frustrated on the floor, especially as missed shots (by him and others) mounted and the Boilers blew large leads in devastating losses to Xavier and Butler. And his conditioning has seemed outright poor, at times causing him to appear winded and further unable to take his ideal shots.

None of this is to criticize Rob. It's more of a concern. We're beyond thrilled to have him back on the court and representing Purdue, but that doesn't change the fact that something does not seem right with this team. Games get away from them, whether it's blowing huge leads to lose games, or never getting into rhythm and almost appearing to give up (see MSU). As b-dowd pointed out to me, once their shooting was clearly cold and MSU began to put some distance between themselves and our Boilers, it looked like Purdue wanted to be just about anywhere besides East Lansing.

Those sorts of things are hard to define, with regard to how you correct them. Poor shooting, from the field and the line, are endemic problems and ones that sound simple enough (practice more!) but it's not always that simple, mainly because these guys are young men and there's also the "in your head" element. Such as, you know, when your coach mixes it up with the opposing student section.

Matt Painter is a coach who anyone who reads BS knows is well-loved here. For as much as we often wring our hands when Coach Hope is faced with football program decisions, we've often found ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum during the winter, completely trusting "Matty" as he makes decisions affecting the basketball program. Is it time to cease the blanket trust and begin asking questions? I'm not sure. But I do know that the focus after a 25 point shellacking from an MSU team that is good but isn't that good shouldn't be on how idiotic students of a rival school insulted the honor of one of your players. Sure, it was classless, what?

Lewis Jackson is a floor leader and gives his body up willingly for the betterment of the team, but he's never had to be a vocal leader. Rob Hummel continues to soldier on, though his frustration is becoming apparent and his body language has certainly taken a turn for the worse. Ryne Smith is a talented shooter who appears prone to bouts of under-confidence. And Coach Painter is now bickering with students during road games (who, make no mistake, will never forget that they got under Painter's skin).

The road does not get easier from here onward. Is there time for the Boilers to toughen up (both mentally and physically) before it's too late?


Matt Q said...

One thing that really bothers me is ive seen a number of loose balls that players aren't diving on the ground to get. They are literally watching as the opponent gets on the ground and takes the ball. this team is supposed to be based on hustle and high energy, if players aren't going for loose balls all out then we lose that advantage. Purdue basketball needs to be all about getting dirty, honestly, I blame painter for that. If these kids aren't being taught how to get on the ground then he is just being lazy this year.

Unknown said...

Practice is where guys establish themselves as leaders. That's where the real work gets put in and examples are set. I have to think that Lew and Hummel's inability to practice consistently has severely limited their ability to show the youngsters how to go about things, mentally and physically. That type of thing doesn't just magically take shape on game days.

I also don't think we have the best group of "followers" on this bunch. The best of leaders can only be so successful without people who are willing to respond and rally for the cause. I know being an effective leader means inspiring the troops to buy in and give their best, but that only goes so far if the troops are resistant to the message. And whether it's not seeing Rob/Lew get after it in practice, too much pride, not enough pride, a chip on their shoulder, lack of passion, a combination of these or something else entirely, this particular group of would-be-followers (and, ideally, leaders-in-training) does not seem to be buying in, at least not consistently. Makes me concerned for the near future when we're looking at them to be the ones doing the leading.

Lastly, the lack of production by our bigs cannot be understated. It has placed a ton of pressure on everybody else to do more than they comfortable with and, quite frankly, more than they are capable of doing. That pressure has seemed to manifest itself in poor decisions on the court with predictably poor results (bad shots, turnovers, etc). That, in turn, has led to guys not trusting each other out there. Guys seem to think they need to be the one to make something happen because they don't think the next guy will. Guys trying to do too much and not trusting each other is not the recipe for good team chemistry.

J Money said...

Good remarks, Unknown. You should become Known.