Well, Boilermaker Nation is five games into life after J.J. and 3-Twaun, and surprisingly it hasn’t been all doom and gloom in Mackey Land. Purdue moved to 4-1 Sunday night after losing in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament to #15 Alabama 65-56 (Update: the Boilers moved to 6-1 after crushing Western Michigan on Wednesday night). The Boilers did well to advance to the championship game of this holiday tourney with wins over two very good opponents in Iona and Temple. Iona is a squad that head coach Matt Painter called a top twenty team in the nation, while Temple is a very solid A-10 team which nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 last March. In these two wins, Purdue showed unexpected scoring prowess posting totals of 91 and 85.
But the best bit of news to come out of the first handful of contests: Rob Hummel is back. Understandably, he doesn’t seem to have the same lift he used to, but he’s as good as we could have hoped he’d be at this point. Granted it’s a small sample size, but the 5th year senior is averaging 20 points and 5 boards thus far. It looks like he’s on track to have a very productive final season.
With all that said, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies in West Lafayette either. Purdue has struggled mightily in its first few games on the glass and at the free throw line. Even when All-American center JaJuan Johnson was on the roster rebounding was a struggle for Purdue (a historically guard heavy program), but good gracious we’ve got to at least be able to out rebound teams that nobody has ever heard of like Northern State and High Point. The Boilers currently rank 178th in the country in the rebounds per game category.
What’s been worse, or at least far more noticeable than the rebounding, has been the free throw shooting. The Boilers are shooting a lousy 64% from the line thus far this season, 7 percentage points below last year’s mark. As Hummel said after a near loss to High Point in which Purdue shot 6-19 on free throws, “They call them free throws. They’re free. You’ve got nobody guarding you.” (Hummel was later seen shooting free throws in Mackey deep into the night, Larry Bird/Herb Brooks style.) To delve further, if we throw out the game against Temple in which the Boilers shot a blistering 82% from the charity stripe, the team’s season average would be an incredibly atrocious 57%, only 5 percentage points higher than Shaquille O’Neal’s NBA career average. I think it might be time to bring back the ol pre-foul shot Brian Cardinal face wipe ritual.
Looking past the stats, Purdue has struggled in general on the defensive end of the floor. This is very strange coming from a program with the slogan “Defense Lives Here.” Defensive intensity was the one thing going into the season that I thought I could count on. “At least we’ll be able to make teams work for tough shots on every possession,” was my exact thought. Not so much thus far this season (with the exception of an excellent defensive effort against a very athletic Alabama team). With defenders like Barlow, Jackson, and Hummel; I certainly think we have the personnel to once again be one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten. I’d expect improvements from this group.
Offensively, Purdue is going to live and die by the 3 pointer this year. Period. Ryne Smith has already tied the Purdue all-time record for most 3’s made in a single game with eight against High Point. We have no post presence, and we’re not going to have one. So we might as well just embrace the barrage of 3 ball offensive strategy. Luckily, we have a roster full of long range riflemen and guys like Lew Jack and Kelsey Barlow who can drive and dish. Ryne Smith and Robbie Hummel are two of the best shooters in the Big Ten and the slew of other guards on the roster can all shoot reasonably well also. There’s going to be nights when the ball just won’t fall. Purdue will lose on these nights. That’s all there is to it.
In conclusion, minus the infuriating free throw shooting, I’m fairly pleased with this Purdue team so far. We don’t have realistic dreams of reaching the Final Four this year (although you never know), but this team will certainly compete in the Big Ten and reach the NCAA tournament.
At this point in the season I’ll stand by my preseason prediction for the Boilers. We’ll finish 5th in the Big Ten and then make a surprising run to the Sweet 16. Yeah yeah, I know we couldn’t even get to the Sweet 16 last year with two future NBAers on the roster, but you know what my dad always said, “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” In a year without the NBA and without a single regular season win for the Colts, surely the sports gods will throw me a bone here. (And if they think the bone is Purdue going to the Motor City Bowl… I’m gonna be pissed).
Plus, Robbie Hummel’s got to have some good karma coming his way. Right?