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For a team that returns four of its five starters, six of its seven leading scorers, and enters the season defending a Big Ten crown, the No. 20 Purdue Boilermakers elicit wildly differing reactions.
The optimist sees a team loaded with depth, experience, and sharpshooting. This person sees a glorious dark-horse narrative in which Matt Painter’s squad — against all odds — defends its title against perennial powerhouse and overwhelming favorite Michigan State, secures a two seed in the NCAA tournament, and earns the program its first Elite Eight since 2000.
The pessimist sees the gaping void left by the departure of Caleb Swanigan, aka “Biggie,” the most dominant big man in NCAA basketball a season ago. This person sees a collection of role players without their star. Without Swanigan, the Boilermakers stumble below not just Michigan State but also Minnesota, Northwestern, Maryland, and Michigan.
The unsexy truth, though, is that Purdue will fall somewhere between these two poles. The interesting part, however, isn’t where the Boilermakers will land — but how they’ll land there, and the journey starts in their season opener against SIU-Edwardsville on Nov. 10 at Mackey Arena.
Reasons For Optimism
This is going to be shocking, but Matt Painter is in fact the standard-bearer for Team Optimism. At the Big Ten media day, the first name the Purdue skipper mentioned — after brief homage to the departed Swanigan — was Isaac Haas.
“I think Isaac Haas has been a guy that's never been the go-to guy for us down low since we've had A.J. Hammons, we've had Caleb Swanigan,” Painter said. “And I think for him to have a breakout year for us this year would really help.”
Beyond the 7-foot-2 center Haas, Painter pointed to his team's offensive and defensive versatility, depth, and experience. But the head coach noted emphatically that more important than the number of games played is the type of experience, the quality of it.
I think what's more important than that is the experience of having success together. That's more important. A lot of people say, ‘Hey, we have a bunch of seniors.’ But, yeah, have you won with them? We've gotten third in our league their freshman and sophomore year. And obviously last year we were able to win the league.
So they've had a lot of success together. And I think that's more important than anything. And so we're excited about playing this season, but we also know we lost a really good player, and he brought a lot of mental and physical toughness to our team.
Painter’s right about the quality of experience. Although Purdue lost its leading scorer, the Boilermakers bring back their second- through seventh-leading scorers. Those six players accounted for over 58 points per game.
That production coupled with the addition of a talent such as Nojel Eastern — a 6-6 complete point guard with NCAA-ready athleticism — means Purdue is ready to rumble.
Reasons For Pessimism
The Boilermakers don't have a star. It seems that Painter, and others, are trying to tag Haas with the role, but while the big man is a gravitational force in the center of the paint — a reference point for the rest of the offense — he doesn’t have the attacking arsenal needed to sustain the focused attention of a defense.
A season ago, Haas began the year as a starter and ended as Painter’s difference-maker on the bench; the move was a tactical change rather than an indictment on Haas’ play. The center’s production more or less remained the same: He usually gave around 20 minutes an outing and scored nearly 13 per game.
One reason: foul trouble. The jewel in the dubious crown was Purdue’s Feb. 28 date with in-state the in-state rival Hoosiers, in which Haas committed four fouls in six total minutes of floor time (to be fair, the refs called 48 fouls in that game).
But it wasn’t an isolated situation. On five other occasions Haas came within one foul of exiting, and seven times he logged three fouls. Remember, that’s all while playing under 20 minutes per game. It’s an issue. Haas didn’t eclipse 30 minutes of action in a single game last year.
What Haas gives you on the court is an old-school post on the block. What he’s good at, he’s really good at: playing with his back to the basket. He offers two or three moves as he forces his opponent closer and closer to the rim. His proximity to the basket, and the ease with which he gets there, is what helped him shoot 58.7 percent from the field.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much else offensively. And his production in other areas of the game is lacking, too. Nowhere else does that fact show itself more than rebounding — an area in which you’d think a 7-2, 290-pound man would excel.
Haas averaged five rebounds per game and only logged 10 or more rebounds on three occasions, two of which were blowouts. You’d like to think that he’ll improve here given more playing time, but there are moments, watching Haas, when it appears he lacks the natural, effortless instinct that's seen in every great rebounder.
To label Haas a non-star is, at this point, conjecture, but until he can both stay on the court for 30 or so minutes per game and absorb the brunt of the opposing defense it’s a fair conclusion to reach. Like Painter said, Haas has never been the go-to guy; he’s existed under the shadow of Hammons and Swanigan.
The next-best candidate for the cosmic void on Purdue’s roster is senior Vince Edwards, a 6-8 forward who stuffs the stat sheet — 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game last season — and is more versatile offensively than Haas. Edwards has shot better than 40 percent from three the last two years and has shown flashes of taking over games single-handedly.
Edwards ended the year on fire. In three of the last five games of the season, he eclipsed 20 points. All three games were victories, and two happened under the pressure of March Madness.
The Truth Isn’t Sexy
Basketball is a game of stars. It’s what makes the game amazing. It’s also what makes Purdue’s title defense particularly daunting; hoops isn’t a win-by-committee affair.
Painter’s squad has experience and talent, but at the moment it doesn't have that one guy.
Maybe that guy is, in fact, Haas. Maybe it’s Edwards. Maybe it’s someone else — or no one at all.
The unsexy truth is that Boilermakers will do well this year as they rely on the steady consistency their roster already offers, but they won’t successfully defend their Big Ten title.
The unsexy truth, though, doesn’t mean Purdue (or its fans) should throw in the towel. On the contrary, in a conference with a presumed favorite — Michigan State led by stud Miles Bridges — the fact that the Boilermakers will be knocked a few pegs down the food chain may eventually be a good thing for their team.
Painter has been given the gift of patience. In other words, he’s certain from day one that he’s got a good team, maybe a really good team, that almost literally just needs one thing. That patience affords him nearly five months of experimentation to see if he can find — or cultivate — a star.