I came into Mackey Arena prior to the Illinois game expecting to see a Purdue team that would struggle versus Illinois, but would pull out the game in front of the friendly Mackey crowd. As we all know, Purdue was dominant that night; at least for a half, as they frustrated the Illini and created havoc on defense that led to easy buckets.
I sat down to watch our Boilers play Penn State with the full expectation that Purdue would cruise to victory versus a team in the high-100s to low-200s that had struggled against every respectable opponent they'd played. Purdue was controlled, man-handled and embarrassed.
I thought this season would be like the previous seasons under Painter- defense would create offense, leads would be secure and victories would mount up as the team got better and better. Well, Painter's club is winning at about the rate I thought they'd be doing so, but the way they've done it hasn't been predictable.
They've given away 15 point leads time and time again. They've struggled shutting down marginally-effective guards from opposing teams. They haven't been able to defend the three with consistency. The middle of the defense has been soft. This is not the new norm...but for a season, this is what Purdue is.
I read an article about how practice was following the PSU game. Jackson called it grueling and painful...and about every player on the team said it wasn't like anything they'd seen this season. The team responded to the hellish practice by soundly beating Minnesota in a tough venue. Sure, that isn't beating IU, MSU or aOSU on the road, but it's a start.
As injuries have plagued this team, Painter has decided the only way to keep a cohesive unit on game day is to allow guys to sit out in practice. The problem is, Purdue has not defined by its ability to beat the opponent on offense, but instead has used tough defense, mental and physical toughness and grit to wear down the competition. This year, the cornerstone of what's rebuilt the program is not in place...and it shows.
Rob Hummel is not the Rob Hummel of old. LewJack might be a half step slower than he should be due to on-going back issues...and that's really enough. Two of the team captains, the guys who play more minutes than anyone simply can't sell out play after play. Ironically, they're both in this position because they had put their bodies on the line over and over and over. But now, when guys like AJ or Jacob Lawson seek an example of how to play the game, they're looking at two guys who are far from what they've been physically for the majority of their careers. And when Purdue needs to grind out point in crunch time or hit a free throw down the stretch, the leaders of the team are simply dog tired because they haven't been able to practice to get their legs and lungs back.
It's quite a lousy situation for the team and the coach to be in. But I think Painter figured something out after the PSU game that seems obvious to an outsider- if a guy can't play, he shouldn't play...plain and simple.
Granted, LewJack at 80% is still probably the best point guard on the team. And Hummel at 90% is most-assuredly the best wing on the team...both are still of the two best players in the conference when hobbled. But neither has been able to finish with regularity...and both of these guys' careers will be remembered for defensive stops, big drives and big shots to put games away. It's a shame their Senior seasons have been this way. But things are exactly what they seem to be- confusing.
There's no doubt that when their legs aren't wobbly and they're mentally in the game, this Purdue team can compete with anybody. And there's also no doubt that when they're not absolutely focused on the task at hand, they're the worst Purdue team since Painter's first year as HC at Purdue.
I have said this for years- offense takes skill, ability and athleticism, you can't score without physical tools. But defense is mental. It's the decision to not give up after being beaten on the previous play. It's the ability to ignore your body's reminder that it is ready to quit...and it takes five players who are on the same page to successfully play defense in this conference. Because of fatigue and lack of continuity, this team's defense has been deplorable at times; and as the defense goes, so goes a Painter squad.
Can they improve this season? Absolutely; there's still plenty of upside for this team. Will they become consistent? I doubt it. But next game will take all of the mental and physical toughness this team can muster as they'll play the 1-3 Badgers...who will try to beat up and physically dominate this already beaten up Purdue team.