Coming into 2015-16 college basketball season, expectations among the Boilermaker fan base were high. Purdue had just been back to the NCAA Tournament after a three year break, and almost everyone was returning. Along with that, Purdue had just snagged 5-star big man Caleb Swanigan after he decommitted from Michigan State. Things were trending upward, and although a stretch a Final Four appearance wasn’t out of question. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be as Purdue was shockingly knocked out in the dreaded 5/12 matchup by a tough Little Rock team. There were a few glaring reasons why Purdue didn’t end the season as the feature team on One Shining Moment.
Lack of quality point guard play
Purdue had some solid guards on their roster, there is no doubt about that. Dakota Mathias is a quality shooter and leader, while Raphael Davis was a lockdown defender night in and night out. However, what Purdue lacked was that player that handled the ball every possession confidently. They missed a guy that could be trusted to handle the ball under duress. P.J. Thompson, a sophomore, and Johnny Hill, a grad transfer, split the ball-handling duties throughout the year. P.J. Thompson was one of the more efficient guys in the conference, but those numbers can be deceiving. He posted an unreal 3.86 assist-to-turnover ratio, but that was padded by the fact that he only played 22.6 minutes a night. In terms of what he gave to the team, he was a solid dribbler that tended to wilt under any sort of defensive pressure. Johnny Hill, on the other hand, was a more quick and athletic guard that had turnover problems at times. Along with that, he shot a horrid 22% from three and his decision making tended to be suspect. I think he would have been a solid back up point guard, but he was not a guy that could play major minutes at the Big Ten level. I took the liberty of finding the point guards for the past seven NCAA champions, and they are as follows: Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, Marquis Teague, Kemba Walker and Nolan Smith. Every one of these players was a guy that had a national profile and was one of the better players on the championship team (save for Marquis Teague, who was a good player on a ridiculous Kentucky team.) My point is that guard play always prevails in the NCAA tournament, and Purdue’s just couldn’t do enough to help out the great front court.
They couldn’t hold a big lead
Over the course of the year, I can recall four games where Purdue at one point had a double digit lead and either lost or had the game come down to the wire: Iowa, Michigan State, Maryland and the heartbreaker to Little Rock. I think this epidemic comes down to two things: guard play (as I mentioned before) and coaching/executing. Take the Maryland game: with just over 3 minutes left, Purdue led comfortably by 10. However, as soon as the Terps put on a little press, Purdue wilted and the game was tied before you knew it.
The guard play can be blamed in part but I think the underlying problem is coaching. After Purdue had two turnovers to the press, Coach Painter called timeout to regroup. After this timeout, Purdue proceeded to turn it over three more times before eventually grinding out a win. Even without a proper point guard, Painter should be able to draw something up to get the ball in bounds and up the court. And if he did draw up a quality play, then at least one player, namely senior leader Raphael Davis, should be able to take charge and command the team. However, that was not the case and it turned into a season long problem. What started with a brutal loss after blowing a second half 18 point lead to Iowa ended with a mind numbing loss to Little Rock in the first round, after Purdue led by 13 with a whopping 4 minutes left. I was among the group that thought the problem would eventually work itself out, but it ended up being the Boilermakers’ demise in the tournament.
Looking forward, these problems have a chance to get better. Along with top 100 point guard recruit Carsen Edwards, Purdue also adds grad transfer Spike Albrecht from the University of Michigan. Even if his injury history prevents him from playing huge minutes, he at least provides a veteran presence to tutor the younger guards in running an offense and handling some pressure. Hopefully Coach Painter also realizes that breaking a press is a huge problem for this team and he works on it throughout the off season. Although Purdue loses future NBA player A.J. Hammons and defensive specialist Raphael Davis, if they fix these problems they could be near the top of the Big Ten for a third straight year next season.