INDIANAPOLIS – If Purdue fans want to know one of the answers as to what ails the Boilermaker basketball program this season, they can look no further than Jack Cooley.
That is because the Notre Dame senior center has accomplished what no Purdue veteran frontcourt player has been able to – at least not yet anyway – and that is to develop into a productive player.
“Jack Cooley is a great story,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He's worked really hard to be the player that he is.”
Cooley was a critical component in the Boilermakers being beaten handily by Notre Dame 81-68 on Saturday in the Crossroads Classic. The Irish post finished the game with 18 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks in 29 minutes of action.
In comparison, the Purdue trio of sophomore Jacob Lawson, junior Travis Carroll and redshirt junior Sandi Marcius combined for two points and six rebounds in 28 minutes on the court.
At their current rate of production, Painter's veteran front court players would have to play half dozen games to reach Cooley's totals. And that is one of the biggest reasons that the Boilermakers (4-6) have fallen to the degree that they have.
“Four or five years ago, you would have never (praised Cooley),” Painter said. “I don't know him personally, but he's put in a lot of time.”
As Painter alluded to, Cooley isn't an overnight sensation. He averaged just a single point per game as a freshman and fewer than four per game as a sophomore. His breakout campaign came last season, when his scoring average quadrupled to 12.5 points per game.
In the case of Carroll and Marcius, hopes of such development are seemingly unrealistic at this point in their careers, though Painter disputes that.
“I always look at everything in terms of recruiting, as you stick with somebody and you keep working with them,” Painter said. “I think everybody is a little bit different.”
When this program graduated All-Big Ten center JaJuan Johnson two years ago, Painter needed someone waiting in the wings to step in and begin to fill some of that gap.
Last year, Purdue essentially played without a post threat, as Painter has admitted, and this season, it is relying almost solely on a true freshman (A.J. Hammons) for production on the blocks. For a program led by an eighth year coach, that isn't acceptable.
Every program has players that for whatever reason never materialize into reliable threats. However, to have two at the same position cripples a program.
“I don't like calling a person a mistake,” Painter said when asked if those players should not have been recruited at this level. “I don't think that is fair to them.”
However, it is fair to question why Painter has constructed a roster filled with either older players that are unproductive or younger players that are, well, young.
In Painter's eight seasons in West Lafayette, his teams have failed to win 22 games just once, that being his initial season in 2005-06. With 21 regular season games remaining, reaching that figure is a far-fetched goal given how this team, which already has losses to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan, has performed to date.
“When things don't go right in our program it's my fault,” Painter said. “I don't ever escape from that.”
With Purdue opening Big Ten Conference play against Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State, the lack of veteran presence in its front court is more than likely going to place the Boilermakers in a hole immediately and making it very difficult to recover from.
“We've just got to do a better job,” Painter said. “Whether that is in (player) development or recruiting, we've got to do a better job.”