Coming into the season, the entire Big Ten knew that it had a tough task in stopping Purdue's talented starting lineup. With three All-Big Ten performers and three others who are renowned for lockdown defense, the top of the Boiler lineup is justifiably feared throughout the conference.
The potential Achilles' heel for the Boilermakers has been their inexperienced bench. Once Lewis Jackson went down with an injury and thrust Keaton Grant into the starting five, Purdue was left with no one on the bench who had played significant college minutes.
How has the new crop of Baby Boilers fared through their first seven games? A player-by-player analysis:
Freshman F-G Kelsey Barlow
Barlow introduced himself in spectacular fashion with a thunderous dunk against Cal State Northridge. Since then, he's been spectacularly inconsistent.
Easily capable of stuffing the stat sheet when he's staying on the floor, his defensive aggressiveness has resulted in extensive foul trouble. Saturday's Buffalo game was the first this season in which Barlow has committed fewer than three fouls. Considering he's yet to play more than 19 minutes, this is disturbing.
Five steals and three blocks have given glimpses of potential reward in his risky defensive approach, but he will need to control the aggression and avoid the fouls to stay effective.
Averages of four points, three rebounds, and just under three assists in 16 minutes per game show that Barlow has a wildly versatile game. Offensively, though, Kelsey's still very raw, shooting 43.5 percent from the floor and a weak 7-of-13 from the line.
The dominant eight-point, eight-rebound, six-assist performance against Buffalo offered a tantalizing glimpse of Barlow's upside. Now, the burden falls to Kelsey to play with that kind of control against quality opponents like those he'll find in the Big Ten.
Freshman G D.J. Byrd
Much like Barlow, Byrd is struggling to adapt offensively. After starting strong with 13 points against Cal State Northridge, Byrd has managed only 17 in the six games since. Oddly, he's 6-for-15 from three-point range, but only 2-for-12 from inside the arc.
After ripping nine rebounds in the first two games, he's got only one since. Also, like Barlow, foul trouble is plaguing D.J. The St. Joseph's game was his lone effort with fewer than three fouls, including a ridiculous seven in 10 minutes combined in the Tennessee and Wake Forest games.
Without the spectacular plays that Barlow has occasionally made this season, Byrd's struggles stand out much more. It is hopeful, however, that both are simply suffering from the typical freshman growing pains.
Freshman F-C Patrick Bade
It's starting to sound a bit repetitive, but the Boilers' freshmen haven't quite found that balance between aggressive defense and mindless fouls yet. Bade embodies that perfectly, averaging three fouls in 11 minutes of action this season. His inability to stay on the floor against Tennessee resulted in both he and JaJuan Johnson fouling out, leading to a very small lineup finishing that game.
Like Barlow and Byrd, he played a manly game in his debut against Cal State Northridge, with six points, nine rebounds, and two blocks, but since then, he's been merely a warm body.
When everyone else was going off against Buffalo, Bade managed a mere two points on 1-of-5 shooting and was held without a rebound. The team can't get Sandi Marcius on the court quickly enough, as one big body off the bench simply is not enough.
Sophomore G Ryne Smith
Smith was known as a one-dimensional shooter, which is why he played less than 100 minutes last season. This offseason, he figured out that players who don't play defense don't play for Matt Painter, and the improvement has been impressive.
As one might expect from the roommate of three-time Big Ten All-Defensive guard Chris Kramer, Smith got worked hard in the offseason and has carried the effort over. That work has enabled Smith to earn the minutes he needs to do what he does best: shoot.
He dominated the second half of the Paradise Jam semifinal against St. Joseph's, going 3-for-5 from three-point range and 7-of-7 from the free throw line for a career-high 16 points. For the season, he's 10-of-22 from downtown, but only 2-for-7 inside the line.
Unlike many of the other Boiler reserves, Smith got solid time against Tennessee, and while he wasn't an offensive factor, he was able to record a steal and a block. He's committed only five fouls in the last four games, showing the kind of restraint that his freshman teammates still need to learn.
Senior G Mark Wohlford
After being largely invisible in his first two games, the former walk-on has played 11 or more minutes in four of the next five. A career high 10 points in 11 minutes against St. Joseph's and eight points yesterday against the Buffalo Bulls have showcased his surprising scoring ability.
Unfortunately, like Byrd, Wohlford has disappeared against the quality opponents. Painter only used him for five minutes against Tennessee, and he was scoreless in 14 minutes against Wake Forest. His three rebounds and stiff defense definitely helped against Wake, however.
Mark's shot almost 70 percent so far this season, including 6-of-9 from three-point range. However, for a guy who was expected to be an extra ball handler and distributor off the bench, having only two assists so far is somewhat disappointing.
Wohlford and Smith have combined for great production when Painter needs to rest Grant and E'Twaun Moore. These two may be the biggest keys to Purdue's Big Ten future.
—Sophomore guard John Hart recorded eight points, including two three-point shots, against Buffalo.
—Freshman guard Kyle Coleman blocked two shots in five minutes against Buffalo.
—Freshman guard Stevie Loveless recorded the first two assists of his career in the Buffalo game.
With the freshmen gaining more and more precious experience with every day, the time may come when the natural talent of players like Byrd and Barlow may bail the Boilers out of a difficult late-game jam. In the meantime, though, this inexperienced bench will have a lot of studying to suffer through before they take basketball's ultimate final exams in March.
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