When Matt Painter first arrived at Purdue, it didn't take him too long to turn things around. After one 9-19 season, he led the Boilermakers to six straight 20-plus-win campaigns and six straight NCAA tournament.
But now Painter, now in year No. 9 in West Lafayette, has to pull a quick turnaround again.
Though none of those winning Painter teams made it past the Sweet Sixteen, it was a great streak of success, dotted with second- and third-place finishes in one of the nation's toughest conferences and three separate seasons appearing in the top 10 of the AP poll. Last year was a huge step back, however, as the Boilermakers finished 16-18 — tied for seventh in the Big Ten.
Departure of quality talent was to blame, as Purdue lost JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore before the 2011-12 season and then watched Robbie Hummel leave before last season. But Painter pointed to other areas of blame, too, including a lack of commitment a year ago.
But he also said he's seeing change this year, as returning players have shown better work ethic and leadership. He made sure to compliment his freshmen, too, as well as illustrate potential pitfalls.
"We've had freshmen come in from day one who worked very hard. And they continue to spend a lot of time in the gym," Painter said last week at Big Ten basketball media day. "I think that's something that happens a lot, because when you have more time in the summer, you do put that extra time in and that extra effort, but then once school starts and you get a full academic load, you start with conditioning, you start with weights, you start with individual workouts, now do you put in that kind of time? Since the start of school we've been able to see that with guys coming in after study table, guys coming in at night, some guys coming in early in the morning. And I think you can see it in some of our numbers and shooting in practices and in scrimmages, guys are being more consistent from the line, guys are being more consistent from three.
"I did feel that our struggles last year to shoot the basketball lied in our skill level at times but also in our decision-making. You have to be able to understand what a good shot is for you, and that might be different from one of your teammates. And kind of sometimes when ego clashes with reality, it's hard for a guy to pass up a shot so Purdue can get a better shot a little bit later in the shot clock. There's a part of working on your game, there's a part of understanding who you are and having discipline and taking a good shot."
It was a disappointing step back for the Boilermakers last season, who went 16-18 overall with an 8-10 conference record that sent them to an seventh-place tie in the Big Ten after finishing in the top half in the conference in each of the previous six seasons with multiple second- and third-place finishes. Purdue lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to Nebraska by two points and headed to the CBI, where the Boilermakers were bounced in the second round.
At the helm
Matt Painter is in his ninth season as the Purdue head coach. After suffering a last-place finish in his first season, Painter quickly turned things around and set the Boilermakers on a successful course that included six straight 20-win seasons and six trips to the NCAA tournament. After a disappointing season a year ago, he's leaning on a strong recruiting class to help engineer another quick flip of the team's record.
Departed and returned
While last year's team wasn't very successful, the Boilermakers do return a lot of players, including the team's four top scorers, who all averaged more than 10 points per game last season. Terone Johnson led the way in 2012-13 with 13.5 points per games, and A.J. Hammons finished second with 10.6 points per game. Hammons, however, ran into discipline issues and was suspended for the first game of the year.
Painter landed a terrific recruiting class this season that brings in a total of four freshmen, three of whom were ranked in the top 150 recruits in the country by Rivals. The class is headlined by Kendall Stephens, a St. Charles native ranked No. 61 by Rivals, who started in Purdue's season opener Friday night. Bryson Scott (No. 75) and Basil Smotherman (No. 112) round out that exceptional trio.
"All three came in with great attitudes. And they've all played very hard," Painter said. "Basil Smotherman and Kendall Stephens, they could have started for us (in an exhibition game). They didn't, but they're in the mix in terms of the conversation. I think that competition and that depth is going to help us. Ronnie Johnson is our best quintessential point guard in doing the things necessary to be a good point guard. And Terone Johnson deserved to play more than any player we had on our team. But with that being said, Bryson Scott led in competitive drills in practice. We accumulated 50 different competitive drills through our practices, and he had the best win/loss percentage in those. I told our guys, and I told him and I told Ronnie, that the last time I checked, we get gauged on winning. And I just felt that he had earned that spot (starting in that exhibition game) through his consistent kind of competitive nature through practice."
Purdue was tested right out of the gate, needing a last-minute comeback to win its season opener against Northern Kentucky on Friday night, 77-76. The Boilermakers will play in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., which features top-conference opponents such as Oklahoma State, Butler and Washington State. Purdue gets Boston College in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and faces Butler in Indianapolis, as well, before a non-conference finale at West Virginia.
Not much is expected of Purdue this season, with the Boilermakers nowhere near the conversation when it comes to a Big Ten title. The best-case scenario could happen, however, if Painter can engineer the type of turnaround he has in the past in West Lafayette. A highly ranked recruiting class might have more impact down the road than in 2013-14, but it's a great start. This year's success would lie in the hands — and mental preparation — of returning players.
Purdue's next game comes Wednesday night against Central Connecticut.
This is the fifth in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which CSNChicago.com will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.