Without question, Purdue men's basketball coach Matt Painter is focused solely on tonight's Big Ten Conference game at Illinois (9 p.m. BTN). However, truth be told, the 2013-14 season, in some regard, can begin tonight.
Let's call a spade a spade here, at 12-12 (5-6 in conference play); Purdue's hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament would have to improve significantly to reach slim. But a win over a 17-win Illinois squad – especially on the road – coupled with a decent showing down the stretch, could catapult the Boilermakers into discussion for a spot in the NIT or CBI tournaments. And don't scoff at those events, for they can be very important for the future of this program. Just ask Butler coach Brad Stevens (more on that later).
“Purdue is a young team that is going to get better,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after beating Purdue at Mackey Arena recently. “Both Johnsons (Terone and Ronnie) are tough kids. I think that we did a pretty good job on (A.J.) Hammons, but he has improved so much since the beginning of the year. He is a much, much, much better player.”
Hammons' play has improved of late, and apparently he so has his maturity off of it.
Following the loss to the Spartans, a reporter praised Hammons for his play late in the game and the freshman center would have none of it.
“That's what I did last time and we still lost,” Hammons said. “I played better in the second half instead of coming out and (playing well) in the first half and second half.”
The youngster is being self-critical and acting disgusted when talking about yet another Boiler defeat. That is a fantastic sign for Purdue fans.
Young Boilers like Hammons, Ronnie Johnson, Donnie Hale, Rapheal Davis, Jacob Lawson and Anthony Johnson could utilize an extra couple of weeks of games and practices that the NIT or CBI events would allow.
Also, the Purdue fan base could use a solid showing by those youngsters in a tournament setting as a sign of hope heading into next season.
Last year, Stevens talked at length about how great an opportunity it was for his Bulldogs to be involved in the CBI. If Stevens believes that, then the Purdue players and fans need to listen.
Making either tournament won't be easy. Purdue played the easy part of its conference schedule over the past six weeks and came out 5-6.
That wasn't good.
Following tonight's game, Purdue has home games with Northwestern Michigan and Minnesota, as well as road games at Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. An 0-7 finish is very possible, but so is a 3-4 finish.
As Purdue fans have discovered this year, their favorite team is capable of just about anything – good or bad.
Painter and his team need to forget what is in the past and focus on its new seven-game season, with the post-season, any postseason, as its goal.
It can be a new season for Purdue. It can be a successful season for Purdue. And it can start tonight.