Journal & Courier Purdue insiders Nathan Baird and Mike Carmin and host Clayton Duffy recap the Boilermakers’ 2017-18. How do they define the season? What happened against Texas Tech? What’s next for the program?
Nathan Baird/Journal & Courier
With four senior starters departing, Purdue will look for a new core to emerge and more forward.
WEST LAFAYETTE — When Purdue basketball headed to the Battle 4 Atlantis last Thanksgiving, those three days in the Bahamas were supposed to reveal the team’s potential in 2017-18.
Turns out, in retrospect, they did.
In losses to Tennessee and Western Kentucky, the Boilermakers were too easily taken out of their offensive flow, too easily exploited on the defensive glass and too slow to respond to an opponent’s toughness.
In the wrap-up victory over Arizona — precisely the sort of long, athletic, powerful team expected to create the worst possible matchup — Purdue dominated on both ends in an eye-opening victory.
Purdue then won 18 more games in a row. At times it flashed that same pulverizing ability to take over a game and smother opponents in 3-pointers and man-to-man defense.
Yet the Boilermakers also never fully solved the problems that let it down on those first two days on the island. They remained vulnerable to offensive rebounds all season. They lapsed into offensive stagnation at inopportune times — most noticeably the loss at Wisconsin that cost them a Big Ten Conference title and the loss to Texas Tech that ended the season.
SEASON OVER: Purdue seniors forced to contemplate legacy sooner than they hoped
This can sometimes be a difficult thing to reconcile in sports. Purdue, by nearly any measure, had a great season in 2017-18. More Big Ten victories than the previous season, when they won the league title outright. A program-record 30 victories, including that 19-game winning streak that pushed the Boilermakers to the No. 3 ranking in both polls.
Whether that qualifies as a special season remains in the eye of the beholder. Based on the players’ own preseason definition — namely, breaking through that glass ceiling that has kept Purdue home for the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 1980 — that fantastic campaign fell short of such status.
So the page turns to 2018-19, where success will be both more difficult to achieve and to define.
As three-year starter P.J. Thompson leaves, Purdue doesn’t know who its point guard is right now. Does Carsen Edwards take on that role as a lead guard, providing the long-sought scoring punch at the position Matt Painter envisioned when he recruited the 6-1 junior-to-be out of Texas? Edwards’ increased efficiency as a sophomore makes such a transition plausible, though it would seem to necessitate a significant shift in approach.
Nathan Baird on how the 78-65 loss to Texas Tech fits into the legacy of the four outgoing Purdue seniors.
Nathan Baird/Journal & Courier
Can Nojel Eastern, who became a real asset on both ends of the floor down the stretch, assume those duties full-time? He first needs to work on his shot, both from the perimeter and at the free throw line. How much will incoming freshman Eric Hunter contribute at the point, if needed?
Or will the solution come from outside the program? Purdue has turned to graduate transfers repeatedly for veteran point guard help. Will a Jon Octeus or Spike Albrecht-like free agent emerge to help stabilize the backcourt?
Regardless of the position next to his name, expect Edwards to have the ball in his hands a lot. His sophomore breakthrough came in the framework of a team loaded with savvy, high-IQ veterans. At their best, they knew the value of passing up shots for better ones, especially when Edwards locked into one of his zones.
Assuming he does not elect to remain in the NBA Draft, Edwards would return next season as a preseason Big Ten Player of the Year favorite with a chance to put up scoring numbers the Boilermakers haven’t seen in their backcourt in decades.
It’s been a while since Purdue lost a perimeter player with the value of Dakota Mathias. He’s both the team’s best defender and the program’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. Add in his calming presence and coach-on-the-floor personality and there’s really no way to replace that impact.
Senior-to-be Ryan Cline may get the chance to take a priority spot after three seasons in a supporting role. Hunter and redshirt freshman Sasha Stefanovic continue Painter’s plan for bringing a constant stream of shooting skill into the program.
Yet it’s the frontcourt that could see the biggest change in identity.
The Boilermakers coach said he believes the star sophomore guard would benefit from going through the NBA Draft evaluation process this summer.
Nathan Baird/Journal & Courier
Purdue’s experiment with ultimate size is over, or at least on hiatus. Matt Haarms, while 7-3, is not a back-to-the-basket scoring dynamo a la the departing Isaac Haas.
On the other hand, Haarms’ offensive game contains enormous upside. He rarely utilized his mid-range or 3-point games last season because those shots rarely made sense in the context of the greater offense. As Purdue turns away from the more traditional big man role, it could shift to a more contemporary one that has worked well for Wisconsin (Frank Kaminsky), Michigan (Mo Wagner) and other Big Ten programs.
Jacquil Taylor, who graduates in May, said he hopes to return next season rather than pursuing a grad transfer opportunity elsewhere. Grady Eifert’s contributions in the rotation will no longer depend on Vincent Edwards’ health or foul trouble.
The other redshirt freshman — Aaron Wheeler — has impressed with his athleticism since the day he stepped on campus. He has big shoes to fill as the heir apparent to Vincent Edwards’ crucial role as a versatile small forward who sometimes must play big. By all accounts he and Stefanovic used their season on the sideline well.
It remains unclear what immediate impact incoming freshman Trevion Williams and Emmanuel Dowuona can make. Williams has worked to get himself into shape after dealing with foot injuries last summer. Dowuona, still relatively new to the game and raw, could use a redshirt season to refine his offensive game and all-around skills.
That could mean a team more suited to running the floor and playing to its strengths athletically. What it could also mean is a team as limited or worse on the boards and more prone to turnovers without the benefit of torrential 3-point scoring to offset other weaknesses.
Purdue’s 2017-18 season was about a long-intact nucleus reaching for the peak of its potential. Perhaps it failed, or perhaps it learned that pinnacle wasn’t as high as it hoped.
Now a new core must emerge to chase that same elusive pinnacle.