Matt Painter wants to get punched.
Well, not personally. As a head coach, he must be above the basketball fray to direct it.
He wants his Purdue Boilermakers to take a shot or two or 15. Get knocked down. Get bloodied, if truth be told. He wants it rough and tough because that's what major college basketball is like. It's sure what the Big Ten is like these days as the conference seeks to add to its best-in-the-nation reputation.
Purdue has the makings of a surprise team. There is talent and experience, although this is far from an upperclassmen-dominated group. No matter. Painter likes this team as he didn't like last year's youth-dominated bunch that stumbled to a 16-18 record.
Painter has seen promising signs in practice and in Saturday's scrimmage, but those can be fool's gold. He needs to see it when the games matter. That will happen a little bit in the exhibitions against the University of Indianapolis on Wednesday and Wayne State on Nov. 4 before the season begins for real with the Nov. 8 opener against Northern Kentucky.
“We'll find out about ourselves when adversity hits,” Painter said. “Last year for a young team we didn't do a good job of handling things. We didn't do a good job as a staff of realizing how immature we were. We didn't take care of our business.
“You lose a game. You lose another game. You look back at the nonconference season it's just poor (7-7). We have to do a better job of identifying and trouble shooting.”
Purdue had been to six straight NCAA tourneys until last season. The losing was a jolt to all parties.
“We had a real mature group before,” Painter said. “As a coach, I made a mistake and took some basic things for granted in understanding when guys were ready to play. We had so many young people playing major minutes.”
Those young players, guys such as Rapheal Davis, Ronnie Johnson and A.J. Hammons, are back. So are seniors Terone Johnson and Travis Carroll.
Purdue has 11 scholarship players and all figure to contribute, especially during nonconference action. That could be a game-changer.
“We'll have better depth,” Painter said. “We have the ability to put more pressure on the ball and extend our defense. There will be games the ball doesn't go in, so you have to be solid on defense.”
Rugged defense has been a cornerstone of Painter's program, and that of Gene Keady before him.
“I think we'll be a better defensive team than we have in the past couple of years,” Painter said. “I know we have the defensive depth. That leads to competition and getting better in practice.”
The practice competition has been intense. Rebound drills resemble wrestling contests. The scramble for loose balls is not for the meek.
“We've had competitive practices,” Painter said. “We're better. There no doubt about it, but you also have to perform at game time.”
Freshmen Bryson Scott, Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman have more than held their own. In Saturday's Black-and-Gold scrimmage, Scott had 18 points, eight assists and three rebounds. He attacked the rim to earn 15 free throw attempts, making 12.
Stephens is the outside shooter Purdue has been looking for since E'Twaun Moore graduated. He scored 14 scrimmage points on 4-for-8 three-point shooting.
The two senior transfers, forward Errick Peck and guard Sterling Carter, are practicing to their experience. Peck had 12 scrimmage rebounds. Carter had 12 points, including a pair of three-pointers, which is what you'd expect from a guy who arrived with a sharpshooter reputation.
“I've been impressed with them,” Painter said. “Now, you don't want to get the cart before the horse, but after two to three weeks of seeing guys consistently competing and getting better … They have flaws and breakdowns. They'll have struggles, but if they play hard and have good attitudes, they definitely have the talent to play in the Big Ten. They can be very good players.”
That's true of most of these Boilers, but nothing is guaranteed, and after last year's struggles, Painter takes nothing for granted. He'll look for more signs in Saturday morning's open scrimmage.
“We have more things checked off, but weaknesses come through great competition. We'll see what those are. As a coach you try to get things corrected. We'll see who gets exposed and where, and see if those are correctable in the short term or the long term.”