Purdue lost Saturday night, to Vanderbilt, by a score of 81-71. The final score was in no way indicative of how close the game was. Truth be told, a 30-point loss would perhaps be more appropriate, given how listless the Boilermakers played. Regardless, Purdue founds themselves in unfamiliar terrain Saturday night - the first true road game (not counting neutral site games), and this one versus a major-conference opponent. Vandy isn't going to set the college basketball world on fire this season, but they - and the fact that the game was on the road - would provide a nice test for the Boilermakers.
And just like me in my ECE-201 final (the first time I took that class), Purdue would fail that test miserably, and in doing so, expose some of the pain points with this team.
Whereas an early-season loss to Kansas State would dampen some of the excitement surrounding this team, wins against Missouri, BYU, and N.C. State raised expectations and then some. So much about this team was unknown heading into this season; but with some big-boy wins against respectable opponents under their belt, Purdue fans felt confident that we had the answers to those questions.
But as the collective Boilermaker gaze turned to March, that hyperopia only served to blur what was immediately in front of this team. A loss to North Florida shone a spotlight on some very real limitations with this team; limitations that would temporarily be abated following consecutive wins against IPFW and Arkansas State. But once again, Matt Painter and Purdue are forced to reckon with those very same concerns.
Of the issues facing this enigmatic Boiler squad, the questions surrounding Kendall Stephens and AJ Hammons sit front and center. The center and the shooter; their rightful place at the head of this once-again rebuilt team unquestioned in August, now very much in doubt. Neither were in the starting lineup against Vanderbilt, nor were they earlier in the week against Arkansas State. Hammons has experienced a failure to launch this season; the promise of a slimmer, more athletic dominator in the post (debuting a freshly minted 3-point shot) has been muted by a concerning lack of production. Hammons continues to be a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end as he leads the team with three blocks per game, but the only other statistical category he leads the team in is turnovers, as he averages 2.1 per game. His starting lineup replacement - Isaac Haas - has made a compelling case for a permanent role as the primary big guy. As good as Haas as been this season, and as big of a fan of his I am, and given how excited Purdue fans should be about his future, the fact that he's been able to displace AJ Hammons is not a great sign. Guys who many expect to be an NBA draft pick next summer should not get booted from the starting lineup.
Stephens has found himself replaced in the starting lineup by freshman shooter Dakota Mathias. Stephens has been plagued by on-going struggles on the defensive end (minus a couple eye-popping blocks on perimeter shooters) and at times devastatingly poor shot selection on the offensive end. Stephens' long arms and textbook form on his jumper pretty much means that he can get off any shot he wants; however, not every open shot is a good shot. Adjudicating the difference between the two has been a struggle for Stephens this season. Mathias brings a little more restraint to the role of "shooter" (perhaps a little too much restraint, to be frank); but as bad as Stephens has been on defense, Mathias has sadly been worse. The weak link in Purdue's perimeter defense has all too often led to scramble mode and open 3-pointers for their opponent. That does not bode well for a team competing in a conference full of shooters.
Yet having said all that, I still regard this season as having a lot of positive potential for this team. No one likes to hear this, but many of the biggest roles on this team are being filled by guys who are either true freshmen or new to the team. It's easy to get impatient, or adopt a hyperbolic "no excuses" attitude. The fact of the matter remains that outside of those ranked in the top-20 and a few lower-ranked outliers, most freshmen tend to experience some transition issues (and out of the top-20, probably as much as 20% of them don't hit the ground running either). And when your starting lineup contains three freshmen and a transfer who joined the team less than two months ago, like it or not, the team will stub it toe on occasion. It's as predictable as the tide going in and out.
Next Saturday Purdue faces a ranked Notre Dame team in the Crossroads Classic; one last chance to notch a quality non-conference win and push Purdue to the all-important number of '10' non-conference wins. This season the Boilermakers have demonstrated a high degree of mental strength in responding to adversity, a trend they will need to continue if the expectations of a success-hungry fanbase are to be met.