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Though a contender, Purdue will need to earn more relevance

October 15, 2015 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

In a Big Ten Conference full of interesting teams for one reason or another, Purdue isn’t getting as much mention as one might expect given the team’s makeup and how they did last season. There are high expectations for the Boilermakers for obvious reasons, but they’ll have to earn their way to more relevance.

Last season, the Boilermakers were thought to be an also-ran in the Big Ten, a good team hidden by a number of very good teams in the conference and maybe a year away from a big year. That team had no seniors and five freshmen a year after going 15-17. There was potential, to be sure – big man A.J. Hammons was dripping with it, and a couple of others had shown some promise – but we’ve long established what a loaded word “potential” is. Instead of having growing pains, they tied for third in the Big Ten at 12-6, overcoming some non-conference adversity along the way. They made it to the NCAA Tournament, losing to Cincinnati.

In non-conference play, the Boilermakers looked like they might be a year away. They started off 6-1, but none of those were true road games (they were in the Maui Invitational, finishing fifth) and their best wins were against NC State and Missouri – good, but not mind-blowing. Then they lost to North Florida, which didn’t end up looking so bad since they won the Atlantic Sun, lost to Vanderbilt (road) and Notre Dame (neutral, in Indianapolis) before losing to Gardner-Webb. While Gardner-Webb, like North Florida, was a postseason team, a contending team in the Big Ten doesn’t lose to both teams at home. Maybe one, but not both.

The Boilermakers grew from them, though, as their worst loss the rest of the way was probably their loss at Minnesota in February. They went 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament. It was just enough, and they made it to the Big Dance.

Now, Purdue returns four starters and over 82 percent of both scoring and rebounding from last season. They return 135 of their 170 starts from a year ago. And they add a terrific freshman talent in Caleb Swanigan along with four other newcomers. Much more will be expected from this team. But it isn’t just teams who figured to be picked ahead of them, like national title contender Maryland, that are taking up more of the discussion; it’s also the likes of Wisconsin and just how good they will be with the wealth of experience lost from last season’s team, as well as Michigan and whether or not they can bounce back from injuries and at times so-so play.

Hammons had a nice year, but the big development was Rapheal Davis picking up right where he left off at the end of the prior season. Davis emerged as a starter in 2013-14, especially at the end of the season. Last year, he came into his own as the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, while also averaging 10.7 points per game to be their second-leading scorer. All of his numbers jumped in Big Ten play as well.

Davis led the way as Purdue was fifth in the conference in field goal percentage defense, but not far off conference leader Maryland. They were better in that area in conference play, allowing Big Ten opponents to shoot 39.3 percent, and they were also third in rebounding margin.

As Davis is the team’s clear leader and has become the guy they can hang their hat on, Hammons becomes the guy who can bring this team to another level. He had six double-doubles last season, but you feel like he can get more than that, and he led the Big Ten in blocked shots for the third straight year. He bypassed the NBA Draft to return for his senior season, and will have help inside from Swanigan, who should make his life easier, along with returning starter Vince Edwards and Jacquil Taylor, the latter of who had to take a medical redshirt a few games into last season. Edwards was invited to try out for the USA Basketball U-19 team.

Offensively is where this team can improve to reach their potential. They shot reasonably well overall, but not well from deep and led the Big Ten in turnovers. Only junior guard Kendall Davis shot better than 34 percent from long range last season, and he shot better from deep (38.4 percent) than he did overall (35.1 percent). With the inside scoring threats this team has, those numbers have to – and should – get better.

That’s where the big question comes in, which is who replaces the lone departed starter. Jon Octeus was far from a household name, but he was a steady hand at the point who shot 49 percent from the field and had a 1.78 assist-to-turnover ratio. He was perhaps their unsung hero last season, especially considering he was a late addition, and he won’t be trivial to replace because of the position he played. Fortunately, though, they have a couple of options in sophomores Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson. The two are a contrast in size, so they give head coach Matt Painter a couple of different options for the kind of lineup he may want to put on the floor.

Purdue has a tough non-conference schedule that will test this team. They open with two home games in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, the second one against America East contender Vermont, then head to Connecticut for the back half of that to play Old Dominion and either Florida or Saint Joseph’s. They host Patriot League contender Lehigh, go to Pittsburgh in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, then have home dates with New Mexico and Vanderbilt sandwiched around a few other home games and a matchup with Butler in the Crossroads Classic.

There’s a lot to like about this Purdue team. They have proven they can defend, they have a strong inside group, and Davis keys the perimeter unit with a lot of intangibles. Painter can coach, and he has quietly done a nice job during his tenure at the school. If they can replace Octeus without much issue, this team can contend in the Big Ten, and then have people talk about them more than they are right now.

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