Last season’s Purdue Boilermakers were a young team with loads of potential. That potential only seemed partly realized, however, even with a final record of 27-10.
Three losses in the final four games of the Big Ten season ended the Boilers’ chances of catching Michigan State for the regular-season title.
Even after winning a somewhat surprising Big Ten tournament championship, Purdue had its problems with Northern Iowa and Washington before falling to Connecticut in the Sweet 16.
The team that finished second in the conference in scoring offense, and fourth in defense, returns largely intact. Coach Matt Painter hopes that one very large presence is gone, that being forward Robbie Hummel’s persistent back problems.
Hummel earned his tough guy credentials by playing in pain for the majority of the conference season. He still managed averages of 12.5 points and seven rebounds per game, finishing fourth in the Big Ten on the boards.
Hummel may very well be the most valuable player in the country, in terms of his impact on his team’s hopes. Many preseason observers seem optimistic enough about his health to make him an All-Big Ten selection.
If he plays to that level, the Boilers have a good chance to be a second or third seed in the NCAA Tournament. If he struggles with his health again, Purdue could be meeting a second or third seed in the second round.
The Boilers’ other two main performers, guard E’Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson, also return for their junior years.
Johnson has progressed from a skinny project to a borderline NBA prospect in his two seasons under Painter. His scoring improved from 5.4 points per game in 2007-08 to 13.4 last season, and his 54 percent from the field ranked second among players with at least 100 baskets. He also led the league in blocked shots and made driving to the basket a serious adventure for Purdue’s opponents.
It was Moore, not Hummel or Johnson, who led the Boilers in scoring last year, placing ninth in the conference at 13.8 points per game. Despite that, Moore has tremendous room to improve his game.
His shooting was spotty, with percentages of 42.2 from the floor and 33.7 from three-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio was far closer to even than his coaches or fans would like, with 111 assists and 97 turnovers.
Failure to improve his ballhandling could result in several unnecessary losses in the competitive Big Ten.
The rest of the Boilers’ backcourt remains a major strength. Purdue’s only two contributing seniors, guards Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant, provide steadying experience built over three seasons of valuable play.
Grant contributed eight points per game last season, despite shooting only 36 percent from the floor and 65.8 from the free throw line. Perhaps more valuable than his offensive abilities, though, is the lockdown defense he provides on the perimeter.
Few in the Big Ten know more about lockdown defense than Chris Kramer. Kramer has been named to the conference’s All-Defensive team all three seasons, winning Defensive Player of the Year last season, and has led the league in steals the last two years.
He trails only Brian Cardinal on Purdue’s all-time steals list, and may also be second to Cardinal in terms of career floorburns.
Sophomore Lewis Jackson is Purdue’s resident lightning bug. At 5'9 he led the team with 118 assists last season while also contributing 5.9 points per game. Late in the game, however, he becomes a liability. He desperately needs to improve his 58.8 percent free throw shooting to truly be able to lead the team in the final minutes.
The Boilers also eagerly anticipate strong contributions from four-star freshman guard D.J. Byrd of Crawfordsville, Indiana. Byrd is listed at 6’5 and 214 pounds and was ranked as the No. 24 shooting guard in the country by Rivals.com.
Purdue’s largest weakness will be up front. Beyond Hummel and Johnson, depth is extremely thin. Freshmen Patrick Bade and Sandi Marcius are the only other players on the roster taller than 6’5.
Marcius, a 6’9, 260-pound native of Croatia, was ranked as the No. 14 center in his class by ESPN. The 6’8, 235-pound Bade was a McDonald’s All-American nominee out of Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, where he also backed up JaJuan Johnson.
The outlook for the Old Gold and Black is quite rosy this season. Many publications and websites, Bleacher Report included, have the Boilers ranked in the Top 10 to start the season.
They are also cited as a darkhorse Final Four candidate. Like every other team in the nation, however, they will need the best of health and good breaks to realize that lofty potential.
Last season, Purdue was largely able to play through Hummel’s health woes, thanks to the size and experience of players such as Nemanja Calasan and Marcus Green. With those players now gone, the Boilermakers need big seasons from their big men, lest they run the very real risk of coming up small in March.
For more from Scott Henry, check out Starr*Rated.