The blend of backcourt experience and talent that the Purdue Boilermakers brought into the season was supposed to dovetail nicely with the skills of frontcourt stalwarts Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson. This combination had many Boiler fans thinking thoughts of Final Four tickets.
Then came the foot injury to sophomore Lewis Jackson, and things changed. While Purdue was still able to manage a perfect non-conference run, vulnerabilities were lurking.
Now that the Boilers are charging into Big Ten play, that backcourt, expected to be so brilliant has become simply brutal.
During Purdue's three-game losing streak, All-Big Ten candidate E'Twaun Moore has valiantly attempted to carry the team on his back. Moore has scored 67 points in the three defeats while shooting 54 percent from the floor.
During that same span, his fellow guards Chris Kramer, Keaton Grant, Kelsey Barlow, D.J. Byrd, and Ryne Smith have managed only 41 points on wretched 16-for-56 shooting (28.6 percent). The five are a combined 2-for-25 from three-point range.
As I've written before , Purdue has struggled with simply getting into an offensive set when faced with any manner of defensive pressure. Much of that is being laid at the feet of these guards, including Moore, none of whom could be considered a natural collegiate point guard.
All but Byrd have taken a turn trying to run the offense. During the losing streak, Moore and Barlow are the only two with negative assist-to-turnover ratios. Not coincidentally, Moore and Barlow have been the only two playing with great aggressiveness in the halfcourt, seeking to attack the basket.
The rest have settled for heaving three-point tries to very little effect. Forty-nine of Purdue's 115 field-goal attempts, or 42.6 percent, came from beyond the arc in the losses to Ohio State and Northwestern. The team made 15, but 10 of those came from Robbie Hummel and three more from Moore.
In their zeal to try to recapture the gritty defense that was Purdue's calling card early in the season, the guards have resorted to playing it with their hands rather than their feet. Kramer, Grant, Smith, Barlow, and Moore have combined for 42 fouls during the losing streak. Each has had at least one four-foul game, Moore fouled out of the loss to Northwestern, and Kramer only playing 15 minutes was a leading factor in allowing Ohio State's Evan Turner to torch the Boilers for 23 second-half points.
So what can be done to salvage the season along with the reputations of these heretofore solid collegiate athletes?
First, more inside exploration would help. There aren't many truly dominating shot-blockers in the Big Ten, and the most dominant players for their own team. Kramer, Grant, and Smith can produce points this way, as the three are shooting a combined 80 percent from the free-throw line.
Also, taking the ball in among the trees could draw several fouls from opponents' starting forwards and free up greater opportunities for Hummel and Johnson against the reserves.
Secondly, better shot selection overall would serve everyone well. Smith is a prime example, as he has attempted only 12 shots inside the arc all season, making six. The three-point shot is seen as basketball's great equalizer, capable of bringing teams back from big deficits quickly.
Of these three games, however, the only one in which Purdue fell behind by more than 10 points was at Wisconsin, where they only attempted 10 threes. In fact, Alabama is the only other opponent to hold a double-digit lead on the Boilers all season.
Thirdly, let Barlow return to the wing, where he seems much more comfortable. Barlow is second on the team in turnovers, despite being seventh on the team in minutes. Any of the other guards should be capable of finding Barlow on cuts to the basket, rather than Kelsey attempting to force the play himself. Even when simply bringing the ball up the court, Barlow has wilted, frequently picking up his dribble against the slightest defensive resistance.
Finally, Coach Matt Painter can send a message by chaining his senior co-captain Keaton Grant to the bench for a game. Grant's shot selection has been worse than anyone except Smith, with 47 of his 100 field goal attempts coming from long range. When Lewis Jackson's injury occurred, Grant moved into the starting lineup, and it was thought that he could manage the point.
Currently, however, Grant sits third on the team in assists behind Kramer and Moore. He's always been a gunner, but in the current circumstances, someone has to step up and modify their role, and who better than one of the team's only two seniors? If Grant can't accomplish any more than a cavalcade of bad shots, he may be more productive waving a towel.
Moore and Hummel are doing their best to halt the losing skid, but without consistent support from any of the other guards, the Boilers will have difficulty getting those two stars, as well as JaJuan Johnson, free from constant defensive pressure. When compared to deeper teams like Ohio State, Michigan State, or Wisconsin, this two-man game may not be enough to keep the Boilers above the Big Ten waterline.