WEST LAFAYETTE - Purdue coach Matt Painter doesn't coach glamour teams, flashy teams, teams that overwhelm with talent and egos rather than ones that rock your world and beat you to your knees.
No, we're not talking thug basketball. We are talking tough-minded, break-your-will play, the kind that Gene Keady once made famous and that Painter hopes will lead to Final Four success.
“I don't know if we have a swagger, but you'd like to create your identity - lunch-pail, blue-collar, play-defense play,” Painter said. “It's where you can always guard, always rebound, always be a smart team.”
In other words, be a team that will thrive in big-time challenges, such as the one coming Tuesday night when Wake Forest (4-1) comes to Mackey Arena as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Sixth-ranked Purdue (5-0) has stumbled in such challenges in recent years. Last season Duke dominated in Mackey Arena. The season before that, the Boilers lost by three at Clemson.
“We haven't won in this (the Big Ten-ACC Challenge) since my freshman year,” senior guard Keaton Grant said. “It's important we do that. We're playing a NCAA team. We have to make sure we follow the scouting report.”
Yes, it's early, but Purdue is playing at a mid-March level - four blowout wins, one cliffhanger over No. 9 Tennessee. Don't take our word. The Boilers left a huge impression on Central Michigan coach Ernie Ziegler, who was once an assistant coach for some top-10 Pitt teams.
“Purdue reminds me of some of the teams we had at Pittsburgh,” he said after the Boilers crunched his Chippewas 64-38 on Saturday. “We had a lot of guys like them. You don't see a lot of McDonald's All-Americas and top-rated guys on the roster, but they all buy into a level of toughness that's hard to beat. They're very worthy of that No. 6 ranking.”
Purdue's worthiness comes with a refuse-to-lose mentality, defensive ferocity and the sense that this team will thrive in a way no Purdue team has in at least a generation.
Proof will come by beating NCAA tourney-caliber teams such as Wake Forest, although its 78-68 home loss to William & Mary on Saturday was a jolt for a team that had crushed its first four opponents by an average of 24.5 points.
“We're looking forward to it,” Painter said. “They have a great program. They have very talented players, size, athleticism and quickness. … We have to dive into our scouting report and play well.”
That includes good free-throw shooting, which brings us to perception. Grant said Purdue's 19-for-20 free-throw shooting against Central Michigan reflected more free-throw shooting in practice.
Not so, Painter said. He insisted the emphasis is the same as it's always been. That includes Painter trying to create practice scenarios that mimic game pressure. He mentioned forward JaJuan Johnson, who last year missed a free throw that would have beaten Illinois, then came back to hit the free throw that beat Wisconsin. This year it's freshman Kelsey Barlow who missed two huge free throws in the closing seconds against Tennessee. He'll make them when he gets another chance, Painter said.
“It's those opportunities that make you tough,” the coach added.
Saturday's opportunity included getting plenty of minutes for young players such as Barlow, Ryne Smith, Patrick Bade, D.J. Byrd and Mark Wohlford.
“We'll show Kelsey the tape and he'll make the corrections,” Painter said. “All his mistakes are correctable. That's true of all the freshmen. You can talk to them about it and show them tapes, but until they go through it they won't 100 percent believe you. You hope they understand what the coaches are talking about.”
Figure they'll understand. Just don't figure it to come with glamour.