|Step forward, young men...|
Coming into this season, we were excited about the prospect of this Senior class leading the Boilers for '11 & '12. Ryne Smith's ability to get under the opponent's skin, Lewis Jackson's hard-nosed bulldog mentality and Rob Hummel's mental toughness and ability to do so many things well seem like a great foundation for a basketball team. However, poor conditioning, inconsistent effort and nagging injuries have put Painter's squad in a position that's unfamiliar to Boilers (at least during the past few seasons). Things are very uncertain as the home stretch of the season begins to come into view...and this team's identity is hazy at best.
Speaking with my esteemed co-editor this weekend, I noticed that he was more irritated than usual (not enough fiber, perhaps) about Purdue basketball. We discussed the lack of effort at certain times this season, how the team looks listless at times, etc. It got me to thinking the above headlined question -- does Purdue basketball have a leadership problem?
It's a question that would have seemed unthinkable in recent seasons. Purdue has soft-spoken but definite leaders in recent years. JJ and E'Twaun weren't in-your-face guys, but they were true leaders-by-example. When the game was on the line, those guys wanted the ball and more often than not, they came through. There was also a fire in their bellies, as evidenced by a number of times when Moore would be seething even after a game for something that happened on the floor. One of b-dowd's favorite Moore videos was a clip posted to YouTube after the Boilers' won a tourney game and all the way up the tunnel, E'Twaun was quietly dag-nabbiting how a guy had swiped him. Easy to admire.
As this season dawned, we openly expressed our concerns about the fact that too much might be expected (or needed) from Rob Hummel. The guy was coming back from two ACL injuries, hadn't played a game in 20 months and was now the most seasoned veteran on a team with lots of young guys. He was going to be looked to by his coach, his teammates, the media...even opposition...as a guy who represents Purdue and the Big Ten and, in the words of some, what's right about college basketball.
The season then got rolling and I know that I, for one, was pleasantly surprised at how well Rob slipped back into character. He shot well, rebounded aggressively, led the team in scoring average and generally seemed like the leader and captain he was needed to be. Rob was like a coach on the floor and there is no doubt that Coach Painter relied on him as such. This was never more clear than in a home game where Anthony Johnson appeared to miss an assignment and then, when barked at by Rob on the court, mouthed off right back to #4. Hummel and Painter appeared positively furious with AJ and he sat for some time, the incident even appearing to impact his playing time in the next game or two.
However, also early on there were concerning signs. Rob wasn't hitting his free throws at his previous 90% rate. He was getting frustrated on the floor, especially as missed shots (by him and others) mounted and the Boilers blew large leads in devastating losses to Xavier and Butler. And his conditioning has seemed outright poor, at times causing him to appear winded and further unable to take his ideal shots.
None of this is to criticize Rob. It's more of a concern. We're beyond thrilled to have him back on the court and representing Purdue, but that doesn't change the fact that something does not seem right with this team. Games get away from them, whether it's blowing huge leads to lose games, or never getting into rhythm and almost appearing to give up (see MSU). As b-dowd pointed out to me, once their shooting was clearly cold and MSU began to put some distance between themselves and our Boilers, it looked like Purdue wanted to be just about anywhere besides East Lansing.
Those sorts of things are hard to define, with regard to how you correct them. Poor shooting, from the field and the line, are endemic problems and ones that sound simple enough (practice more!) but it's not always that simple, mainly because these guys are young men and there's also the "in your head" element. Such as, you know, when your coach mixes it up with the opposing student section.
Matt Painter is a coach who anyone who reads BS knows is well-loved here. For as much as we often wring our hands when Coach Hope is faced with football program decisions, we've often found ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum during the winter, completely trusting "Matty" as he makes decisions affecting the basketball program. Is it time to cease the blanket trust and begin asking questions? I'm not sure. But I do know that the focus after a 25 point shellacking from an MSU team that is good but isn't that good shouldn't be on how idiotic students of a rival school insulted the honor of one of your players. Sure, it was classless, but....so what?
Lewis Jackson is a floor leader and gives his body up willingly for the betterment of the team, but he's never had to be a vocal leader. Rob Hummel continues to soldier on, though his frustration is becoming apparent and his body language has certainly taken a turn for the worse. Ryne Smith is a talented shooter who appears prone to bouts of under-confidence. And Coach Painter is now bickering with students during road games (who, make no mistake, will never forget that they got under Painter's skin).
The road does not get easier from here onward. Is there time for the Boilers to toughen up (both mentally and physically) before it's too late?