Purdue coach Matt Painter still believes in traditional basketball principles. He thinks bigger is better, experience matters and teams win with defense.
But a revamped roster has forced Painter to rethink some things and adapt to the reality of no longer having a natural shot-blocker with A.J. Hammons gone.
“It actually helps us because we can’t just think A.J. is going to save the day or block a shot,” forward Caleb Swanigan said. “I think it forces us to play better unit defense and I think it will help us every day.”
If last year’s Big Ten tournament runner-ups intend to contend for a regular-season title, they don’t have a choice.
While 7-foot-2 junior Isaac Haas is a capable center, he hasn’t yet proved he can match the defensive prowess of Hammons, who manned the middle most of the last four seasons, or JaJuan Johnson, who performed the same job from 2007-11.
Instead, Haas spent his first two college seasons mostly coming off the bench and occasionally battling foul trouble. And beyond Haas and the 6-9 Swanigan , the only other players taller than 6-6 are 6-8 forward Vince Edwards and Jacquil Taylor, a lightly-used 6-10 redshirt sophomore.
To keep Haas active and healthy and the defense sound, Painter is asking a guard-heavy team to protect the front line rather than relying on the last line of defense to erase mistakes.
“We’re concentrating on our close outs and keeping the ball in front of us and having some early help so we’re a better defensive team,” Painter said. “We’re going to be different like I said, but I think we have a chance to be a good defensive team.”
And the Boilermakers have an abundance of players willing to pitch in.
“It’s going to be a lot more about team defense this year,” Edwards said. “As an individual you want to be able to contain the bounce. If somebody gets beat, we’ve got to know somebody is right there to help.”
Here are some other things to watch this season:
Purdue’s inability to take care of the ball late last season led to a surprising first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, courtesy of Arkansas-Little Rock, and Painter has taken measures to make sure there is not a repeat. He even scrimmaged against West Virginia’s full-court pressure just to give his team a glimpse of what it may face this season. Stay tuned to see if it helps.
Painter has found yet another graduate transfer who might pay immediate dividends, former Michigan guard Spike Albrecht. The 24-year-old played in eight games before missing the rest of last season after having hip surgery. During the offseason, Albrecht opted to return to his home state, meaning the last active college player from the Wolverines’ 2013 Final Four team will play at Purdue.
In addition to Haas’ expanded role, he also will have to survive the rigors of more minutes in the rugged Big Ten. He’s already been slowed by a bad ankle, an injury he insists won’t keep him down long. But because ankle injuries can linger, getting healthy before the Nov. 11 season opener against McNeese State will be crucial for Haas.
WHAT TO WATCH
Purdue has four marquee non-conference matchups: Nov. 14 at home against defending national champion Villanova, Nov. 30 at Louisville, Dec. 6 against Arizona State in New York and Dec. 17 against Notre Dame in Indianapolis. Statewide fans may also be in interested in the Nov. 18 contest against Georgia State, which marks the return of former IUPUI coach Ron Hunter.