WEST LAFAYETTE — Matt Painter is starting over at Purdue.
The “Baby Boilers” are all grown up and have moved away, so Painter is building this season's hopes around a young, unproven roster, full of talent and eager to prove the doubters wrong.
Sound familiar? It should.
“We had to do that without Carl Landry and David Teague,” Painter said, recalling the challenge his 2007-08 Boilermakers faced. “A lot of questions go unanswered because we don't have that experience, but it was the same thing five years ago.”
As Purdue fans remember, things turned out pretty well back then — and they could again — even if Painter would rather downplay the comparisons to that previous team, which shocked the Big Ten with four freshmen starters.
But there's little doubt that the lessons those Boilermakers learned then — from working hard to ignoring the hype and criticism — will come in handy now, too.
“They came in, had a great season and ended up second, I think,” swingman D.J. Byrd said when asked what he remembers about the Baby Boilers. “They responded very well. They played the right way and ended up getting a lot of wins. That's something we can do, too.”
Byrd and his teammates have no intention of being dubbed “Baby Boilers II.” All they really want to do is carve out their own niche in Purdue lore.
After Robbie Hummel & Co. finished their freshman season as Big Ten runner-ups, they spent the rest of their careers chasing an outright conference championship and that Final Four appearance that has eluded Purdue since 1980. They never quite got either, finishing in a three-way tie for the league title in 2009-10, winning the conference tourney in 2009 and coming within a whisker of upsetting Kansas in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals last season — Hummel's final season.
That may not change this year, but Purdue has some experienced starters. They'll get two of their top five scorers — Byrd (8.9 points per game) and guard Terone Johnson (9.2) — back.
Byrd, a 6-foot-5, 228-pound senior, is expected to spend most of his time this season at his more natural swing spot rather than filling in at power forward, where he finished last season. Johnson, a junior, spent most of last season as a backup but was still the Boilermakers' No. 3 rebounder, and those numbers could improve significantly as his playing time increases.
“We're trying to get our own identity, and we feel like we're ready for it,” Johnson said. “We can't wait to get into the season.”
Opponents may have their own troubles keeping up with the Johnsons.
Besides Terone Johnson, the Boilermakers have sophomore Anthony Johnson and freshman Ronnie Johnson in the backcourt, too. Ronnie, Terone's younger brother, appears to have sewn up the starting point guard job vacated by Lewis Jackson's departure, and opponents who think Johnson will have trouble making the adjustment to college ball must not forget that he's been feeding the ball to his older brother — and his friends — most of his life.
“Ronnie's been really productive in practice, but he doesn't have a lot of competition,” Painter said. “He sees the floor a frame ahead, and that's a quality our other guys don't have.”
With nine freshmen or sophomores on the roster, the Boilermakers need youngsters like Ronnie Johnson to become key contributors. Painter has no doubt they will.
A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot freshman who played last season at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, has a propensity for shot-blocking and could help the Boilermakers improve defensively. Donnie Hale, a 6-8 redshirt freshmen, showed up in better shape this season than last and could have a major role this season.
Fort Wayne native Raphael Davis, a 6-5 freshman guard, led the Boilermakers in scoring during their summer trip to Italy and could become a key piece if Purdue is going to make another surprise run at a conference title.
Plus, with six players standing at least 6-8, Painter thinks the Boilermakers could give other Big Ten teams a very different look.
“I think we'll be a more traditional, more old-school type of Big Ten basketball team,” he said. “If we're not a better rebounding team, then we're in trouble.”
But if they can capitalize on their size, the veterans improve and the young guys progress as expected, the Boilermakers might see 2007-08 replay itself.
“Of course they reached a level of success after being underestimated,” Anthony Johnson said. “We're a young team, but we can still have great success, too. We look at that as a challenge and a goal.”