Losing an AP All-American, a four-year starter and one of the best three point shooters in the league isn't an easy thing to swallow for any team...and this is absolutely the case for Matty as the team officially transitions out of the Baby Boilers era.
Some programs and fans think banners should be raised when a team has a Phoenician rise out of the ashes...but Purdue fans don't agree with this idea. Sure, 2012's Seniors and the class right before were pivotal for the program as they stabilized things so Painter and Co. could take another step forward, but banners are for championships...plain and simple.
A few weeks ago, J and I talked on the Handsome Hour about our thoughts if the program could finally grasp an elusive Final Four in the near future (defined arbitrarily as the next five years). I said yes, and one of the reasons I think this way is because of the class that's coming on campus in the fall.
Unlike the Baby Boilers five years ago, these guys will be coming into a program with certainty and talent. Sure, Purdue is not Kentucky, but Purdue is a place where players develop over a four year period and the system works- defense creates offense and everyone busts their ass and is ready for their opportunity, even if they're not regularly in the rotation. These ideas don't carry a ton of glamour with them- Purdue doesn't, nor has ever scored 80 points/game under Painter...and a lot of guys don't like playing defense that physically beats you up...but Purdue guys do.
This next class, along with the parts already in place might not be sexy to the media and outside world, but, they are a large departure from what Purdue fans have seen in the past five or six seasons...and it all starts with height.
Carroll (Jr), Marcius (Jr), Lawson (So), Hale (Fr), Simpson (Fr) and Hammons (Fr) are all 6'8" or taller...and most will be in a rotation for significant playing time. In the last four years, Purdue has been knocked out by large Xavier, UConn and Kansas teams in the tourney...and during the season has struggled against big squads like aOSU, MSU and most recently, IU. Getting bigger is important...but it's only part of the story.
What will this group need to do to compete for the conference title in '13? Here are a few things that I think should be a focus for the guys that are returning.
Senior DJ Byrd says via Twitter that he'll be doing P90X in an effort to chisel himself into a different player- that's probably a great place to start for this team. With the flood of bigger players, Byrd might finally be able to move away from the block, especially on defense, and play a 2 or 3. Once he got healthy in '12, his shot became a deadly weapon...and his timing for when he stepped up and hit big shots was just as important. A leaner Byrd will be a quicker Byrd...and his hard-nosed, red ass demeanor will most-assuredly rub off on his teammates. As DJ goes in '13, so go the Boilers...plain and simple.
Next up, the other two Seniors on the roster, Anthrop and Hart. Let's be honest, these two haven't had too many opportunities to play significant minutes. Anthrop is a former walk-on who benefited from Bade's departure from the team a year ago...and Hart, while having the ability to be instant offense has not been able to stay healthy for long-enough for Purdue fans to know what he's capable of. A lot of speculation surrounds both guys- Painter is currently pursuing a JuCo player or single-year transfer to make an immediate impact at the guard position...and if Matty's successful in landing someone, it surely wouldn't help Anthrop or Hart's minutes. Plus, there have been rumors that Hart's oft-injured foot is hampering him so badly that he might not take his final year of eligibility...granted, I haven't talked to Hart to confirm this. In the best-case scenario though, these guys will be role players. Anthrop could be a Bobby Riddell-type of guy by providing some stability and guidance as Ronnie Johnson grows into the college PG position over the course of next season. And if Hart can stay healthy, he simply has got to have the mentality to play defense, if he wants to be on the court. His offense hasn't ever been a problem, but in Painter's system, his defense seems to be a liability.
Next up, if DJ Byrd is 1A for importance to the next season, Terone Johnson is 1B. Like Byrd, it took Johnson a few weeks, if not months to get healthy. But when he did, he made his presence known. Johnson's ability to get to the basket and bulldog defenders with his strength is imperative to the team's success in a year from now...but his ever-improving defense might be more important. TJohn's defensive progression is pretty comprable to E'Twaun Moore's at this point in his career...and if he can continue on a similar trajectory, he'll be one of the league's best defenders by the time he graduates. And while his strength is important, getting quicker will make him a better on-ball defender...something that endears players to Matty. So hopefully, like Byrd, TJohn can come into '12/'13 in the best shape of his life.
Marcius and Carroll are the other two Juniors on the team. These guys have disappointed some Purdue fans with their lack of rapid progression...but the two power forwards couldn't be more different in the strengths of their game...so, they'll need to work on their games in different ways. Carroll was not much of a banger in high school and used his ability to shoot the 18 footer to soften up defenses. In college though, he's been forced to guard 7 footers and fill space in the lane as Purdue simply didn't have anyone else on the roster that could do that in '11/'12. For Carroll to take the next step he needs to do a couple things- Get stronger, first and foremost. A few years ago, we saw Bade dedicate himself to the weight room...and while that didn't pay off for Patrick, Carroll's ability to shoot plus a stronger body would do wonders for him and in turn, the team. Carroll also needs to be able to do the most-simple of things- catch passes in the post...so he's gotta work on having soft hands. Marcius on the other hand is a big, powerful guy...but he needs to work on his footwork. We saw that when he uses his size effectively, he can rebound and even score every now and again...but getting quicker and more agile would help Marcius and the Boiler frontcourt immensely.
Anthony Johnson is one of two Sophomores for next season that needs to take a step...and in my opinion, he will be the guy who makes the biggest step forward on the team. I think we'll see more of AJ at the point in the absence of LewJack...we saw this a bit last season. Like Barlow before him, AJ's length creates tough match-ups for smaller guards...and offensively, he can do a lot. We saw him put on a shooting exhibition v. IU in the second half...and for those of you who saw him play at Whitney in Illinois, you know he can shoot from long distance. He also can drive and hit the tear drop that his pal TJohn likes so much. But it's pretty obvious what would make him better on defense- strength. At times this season, AJ was beaten up a bit by B1G guards...that happens with redshirt Freshman. If he can gain some strength in the off-season, he will make a sizable jump in his effectiveness next fall/winter.
The other Sophomore is the uber-athletic Jacob Lawson. I think if you watched Purdue last season, you can see Lawson's potential...but the college game was unlike anything he played in HS. Lawson can block shots- no doubt about that. But, his poor position on defense forced him to make stupid fouls over and over last season. On the offensive end, he had a tough time in the blocks battling against bigger, stronger players...and couldn't pop out to hit a 15-17 footer to save his life. So his off-season will require a ton of jump shots...something he probably hasn't worked on during his basketball career. He'll also need one-on-one attention and will need to watch film to try to figure out where to be and when to be there, on defense.
His classmate, Donnie Hale redshirted in '11/'12...but don't sleep on Hale. If you saw him play in the exhibition games and you're like me, you probably thought he was not going to be the guy to redshirt. Sure, he's thin. But like Lawson, he's a great athlete and can block shots. But he is much longer than Lawson...and can shoot the mid-range jumper better. I thought Hale might have made an impact that Lawson couldn't last season. But bulking up a bit would help him greatly. Along with AJ, I think Hale can make a big difference next season...and after two years of kind of being on the shelf, he should be hungry. His game as a Freshman might be similar to JJ's as a Frosh.
The incoming Frosh class is up next...have I told you that I like these guys? I like the fact that most have a chip on their shoulder and want to prove themselves to everyone...and, I like that these guys hate IU. Check out their Twitter feeds some time if you think I'm kidding or exaggerating. They're probably pretty damned sick and tired of hearing about IU's incoming class...they'll have the opportunity to play right away (in most cases) and make a name for themselves.
Ronnie Johnson is TJohn's little brother. Since he's the third Johnson on the team, he'll need a nickname for this site. I've got RoJo as my early leader; we'll see if it sticks. RoJo is small like LewJack, but not as strong or quick...but he can shoot the rock. Like former Purdue point guard, Alan Eldridge, he's a lefty who's as comfortable distributing as he is shooting. His shot keeps defenders honest and forces them to play him much differently than LewJack before him. I think he'll be starting by mid-December if not before as Purdue needs a true point guard. Johnson will need to work on his strength as B1G defense will be demanding...and Painter wants to get back to pressuring the ball. If you're looking for a current NCAA player to compare him to, look at Alabama PG, Trevor Releford.
Next up, a guy who contrasts greatly with RoJo, Raphael Davis. Davis plays a bit on offense like TJohn, but has better size. He can shoot the jumper, but prefers to drive. In the offseason, he'll need to work on his quickness as Purdue's defensive philosophy will be tough for the true Freshman to adapt to...but his meanness will help him greatly on defense.
Jay Simpson comes into Purdue with a ton of different skills- he can run the floor, shoot from long range, play down low and rebound. A lot of Purdue fans think he might be a prime candidate for a RS season since Purdue will have so much depth underneath...but I think he'll be tough to keep off of the floor. He'll need to work on his cardiac fitness. He has asthma, and that hindered him a few times in high school...so it's an even tougher battle for him. He reminds me a ton of MSU's Dancing Bear (before he dropped the weight), Draymond Green, but he's taller than Green was as a Frosh.
The guy that might be the biggest difference-maker before next four years are up is AJ Hammons. Hammons is listed at either 6'11" or 7'0", depending on where you look. But he's got long arms and his shot-blocking stats tell the story about his ability to change a game without the ball in his hands. He's blocked five or more shots with regularity in HS, loves cleaning the glass and is a great space-filler on defense. His HS team is an all-star squad that is pretty much a couple of guards coming down and either pulling the trigger or driving...so Hammons doesn't get a ton of opportunities at Oak Hill. I look for Hammons to play right away, but not be a starter. Think old school Boiler, Joe Barry Carroll, when you think of Hammons game. And similarly to Carroll, Hammons is a laid-back guy who is his own man. Hammons will need to lean out a bit and work on getting from baseline to baseline in college, quicker than he needed to in high school.
One of the best things about this incoming class and the guys returning is that they get to go to Italy this summer to participate in one of those exhibition trips. This will help them get to know each other and understand what they might need to work on.
Purdue will probably be picked to finish in the mid-lower-half of the B1G next season. But, without the health problems that last season's team had...and a ton of guys hungry for playing time, I think you'll see Painter's team return to the style of play that was definitive before '11/'12. Defense is a great equalizer...and I think Purdue's ability to match-up underneath will only help the guys up top as they get back to pressuring the ball.
Is it bad that I'm already excited for next November?