State of the Boilermakers
State of the Boilermakers
CBB Summer Buzz: Purdue
By Elena Bergeron
ESPN The Magazine
2009-10: 29-6 (NCAA tournament-- Sweet 16)
They'd been pushing their stay in the tournament a little longer each of the previous two seasons and finally had a team full of Indiana natives that projected as a contender in an Indiana-located Final Four for 2009-10. But after do-everything forward Robbie Hummel tore his ACL in the Big Ten stretch run, the Boilermakers watched as in-state neighbor Butler got to live out what was supposed to be their dream season. "It was tough for guys because it was like if Rob wouldn't have gotten hurt, that would've been our story," says junior guard Lewis Jackson, who rushed back from a broken foot to help the Boilermakers compete last season.
Purdue's rebuilding under Matt Painter progressed way ahead of schedule. The Boilermakers cracked the Sweet 16 two seasons in a row, and did so despite injuries. Purdue has a great program again, not just a great team. Purdue has a chance to have a special season, and if the Boilers stay healthy, this could be a Final Four year.
Few teams can boast a trio like Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. The difference makers, however, will be the supporting cast. Every year, Purdue has gotten better under Painter. The Boilers are solid defensively, well drilled on the offensive end and play as hard together as any team. A lot of teams play hard. Purdue plays hard together. The question is, can Purdue win the battles on the glass that require physical toughness?
Purdue lost Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant, who brought experience and toughness, and that has to be matched by a returnee. I think a real key will be the maturation of Kelsey Barlow. A member of last season's All-Freshman team in the Big Ten, Barlow has size, toughness and a physicality that can be a major boost for Purdue.
The temptation is to slot Purdue right behind Duke in next season's pecking order. After all, the Boilermakers were a legitimate Final Four threat when Robbie Hummel went out last February. The Boilers made it to the Sweet 16 without him and now he returns alongside fellow seniors E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. That should be more than enough, right?
But suppose Hummel isn't 100 percent following ACL surgery. Or a lack of depth beyond the big three leaves the Boilers a step behind the other Big Ten heavyweights, Michigan State and Ohio State. Most worrisome of all is that the graduation of Chris Kramer -- the ultimate "glue" guy -- turns Purdue into a unit in which the whole isn't equal to the sum of the parts.
I have a hard time believing every one of these questions gets a positive answer. Injuries and team chemistry have a way of being fickle. Will the Boilers be very good again? Absolutely. But I do not see them cutting down the nets in Houston.
While Purdue returns the vast majority of the talent that has revitalized this proud program, the loss of Chris Kramer is one that is difficult to quantify based on his points per game. His toughness at both ends and willingess to sacrifice himself made him a perfect complement to the talents of JaJuan Johnson, Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore.
When Purdue went through a three-game losing streak midseason last year, many around the team thought that Johnson had mentally checked out a bit, and when they got him going again, the Boilers were back. Lewis Jackson, John Hart and possibly newcomers Terone Johnson and Anthony Johnson (no relation but both are very well regarded) need to provide some 3-point accuracy, as the Boilers only shot 31 percent as a team last season.
With the scoring of Moore, Johnson, Hummel and a bevy of talented young guards, Purdue will be right in the mix in the deep and experienced Big Ten. But the loss of Kramer and Keaton Grant to graduation, the at times up and down nature of Johnson, and Hummel coming off a late season ACL injury should give us just a moment of pause in anointing Purdue a Final Four favorite.
Without Hummel, Purdue went 6-2 and fell to eventual champ Duke in the Sweet 16, lacking the offensive diversity to push further. Sure the Boilermakers missed the 6-foot-8 Hummel's dogged rebounding, but losing his inside-out scoring (15.7 ppg on 36.4 percent 3-point shooting and 45.5 percent shooting overall) helped drag the team's 114.3 adjusted efficiency (a top-25 rating) down to 108.3 (70th in the country) in the eight games he missed.
With the core of returning seniors back -- Hummel reteams with JaJuan Johnson and leading scorer E'Twaun Moore, who both nixed NBA draft plans -- Purdue is the only BCS team to return three all-league selections. The goal, however, is still the same as when the trio emerged as Baby Boilers: competing for a title. "Seeing Butler do it made us even more hungry," says Jackson. "This year, we want to get to that stage regardless of whether it's in Houston or Hawaii or wherever because we've seen the dream that Butler got to live."
That'll take a little luck and contributions from more than just the big three.
Welcome to Campus
Terone Johnson, 6-2, SG
The veteran team has a solid number of minutes to give out now that Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant have graduated. Johnson, the prototypical Purdue recruit, should be the first youngster to fight his way onto the court. He's always been a well-rounded contributor, averaging 21.5 ppg on 51 percent shooting, 4.4 rpg and 3.9 apg for Indianapolis' North Central (Eric Gordon's high school), but the big-bodied guard (190 pounds) can also defend in the backcourt and on the wing. "All our guards will be fighting for minutes," says Hummel. "But Terone has stepped it up on D in open gym."
Anthony Johnson, 6-2, SG
More of a slashing guard, Johnson fell out of the top 100 rankings because of an ankle injury his junior year. A rare Chicago CPL signee, he can be a volume scorer who can get hot from 3, but his role on this season's team will depend on his ability to play passing lanes when Moore is on the bench. Johnson played AAU ball with freshman forwards Donnie Hale and Travis Carroll.
Hole to Fill: Defensive stopper
If last season's buzz was how to plug up the Hummel-sized gap in the frontcourt, this season's will be how to replace two-time Big Ten defensive POY Kramer. The 6-3 guard masochistically relished the job of shutting down the other team's best player, no matter what position that guy played. And when Hummel went down, it was the undersized Kramer who battled at the 4.
Don't think coach Matt Painter's team will suffer a defensive drop-off. Even with Kramer playing some post, Purdue's adjusted defensive efficiency never dropped below third in the nation thanks to Painter's insistence on pressuring the ball and willingness to send five players to crash the boards instead of two or three. With the 6-10 JaJuan Johnson's 4.1 blocks per game lurking in the paint, look for a combination of Kelsey Barlow, Terone Johnson and Patrick Bade to take it to opponents' scorers.
New Role: Kelsey Barlow
Last year, the 6-5 Barlow earned spot starts and wound up as Painter's first guy off the bench thanks to his ball-hawking skills and willingness to guard four spots on the court. So far, he's the favorite to win the vacant starter's spot, but Barlow's decision-making with the ball in his hands is suspect, and he'll have to find a way to contribute more offensively (3.4 ppg, 1.6 apg) and not be an end-of-game liability at the free throw line (44.6 percent) if he doesn't want to get booted by Johnson or D.J. Byrd.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
How well Hummel bounces back from injury will dictate Purdue's future.
Jackson and Hummel were the only two Boilermakers in classes since May -- Purdue student-athletes have to be enrolled in at least one class to have their summer rent covered -- in order to spend the full summer rehabbing. Jackson says his foot (which was operated on last season) is back to about 90 percent and he's been cleared for full-court play. The pass-first, tempo-pushing guard has used the time to rework his jumper. "I'm breaking down the fundamentals of it. Once I got hurt, I lost my legs and tried to change my shot to adjust to that. It's been just working on keeping my legs under me when I shoot and getting my confidence back. I'm not going to take a huge number of [shots] in games, but I do know that I have to be able to hit them when I'm open." Jackson's never been a huge scorer (5.9 ppg in 08-09 vs. 2.4 ppg in 09-10) but he used to be 44.5 percent on his occasional attempts from 3 and went just 1-for-11 last season.
For his part, Hummel just got cleared for agility drills, after having spent the summer working to strengthen the muscles in his right leg and hitting the weight room. "I've heard that August is probably going to be when I get cleared to play, but I haven't been given a set date," he says. Most of his teammates have been back on campus since June 15, except for JaJuan Johnson, who spent part of July training with the USA national team in Las Vegas. "He told us he got to guard Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Lamar Odom. I think that was the part he was most excited about," Hummel says.
Elena Bergeron is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine.