Purdue's Jay Simpson gets his last shot to make a big basketball impression before A.J. Hammons returns.
Can Simpson make the most of it?
We're about to find out.
The Boilers open their season tonight against Northern Kentucky and Simpson will get every opportunity to show he is ready for prime time, perhaps enough to push Hammons into a backup center role.
“He has an opportunity to keep this spot,” coach Matt Painter said. “We're trying to challenge him to compete. There are no guarantees for anybody.”
Here's what we know.
The 7-foot Hammons, a potential All-Big Ten player, is in his final game of a three-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules. That also sidelined the sophomore for the two exhibition wins over the University of Indianapolis and Wayne State.
While senior Travis Carroll got time as Hammons' replacement, Simpson, a 6-10 redshirt freshman forward, is the guy likely to make the biggest impact.
“He can do a lot of things,” Painter said. “He's a talented kid. He's got to get his production to match his talent. If he does, he'll be all-conference.”
In the two exhibitions Simpson was 6-for-16 from the field. He totaled 17 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes.
“We like to establish him just like we would if A.J. was playing,” Painter said. “You like to establish your big guys early. They can't have predetermined thoughts. They have to be prepared to be in the right positions. It's hard for a young guy to mentally get locked in to what's going on.
“This has been great for him.”
Purdue seeks to have a fast start to the regular season, something that didn't happen last year, when it lost three of its first four games and finished 16-18 to snap a streak of six straight NCAA tourney appearances.
Is there a sense of urgency to ensure that doesn't happen again?
“I would hope so,” Painter said, “but what happens when the coaches aren't around. We've discussed what it takes to be successful in nonconference and what it takes when something goes wrong. When we have adversity, how do we handle it? How do the older players and the team captains help?”
Painter named his team captains this week. They are four-year seniors Terone Johnson and Carroll, plus fifth-year senior transfers Errick Peck and Sterling Carter. Peck came from Cornell. Carter came from Seattle.
The fact Peck and Carter made such a big impression despite not arriving on campus until the summer reflects their maturity and talent.
“They earned it,” Painter said. “They obviously needed time to adjust, but they earned their stripes. They led by example. That's a difficult transition. Both have done what we've asked them to do. They've had a great attitude.”
Purdue improved in its two exhibition wins, struggling to beat Indianapolis 80-73 before crushing Wayne State 91-58 behind punishing defense. The Boilers converted 29 Wayne State turnovers into 41 points.
In those two wins, guard Terone Johnson led Purdue in scoring (13.5 points). Swingman Rapheal Davis, the former South Wide standout, was next at 13.0 points.
However, the Boilers struggled with turnovers and a lack of rebounding, areas Painter said must improve.
“As far as taking care of the ball and rebounding, we have to be consistent in those areas,” he said. “We have too many guys who aren't embracing the physicality of the game.”
Purdue will try to get physical against Northern Kentucky, which is in its second season of NCAA Division I play. The Norse, a former Division II power, don't return any starters from last year's 11-16 team. Eleven players are either freshmen or sophomores.
The top player is 6-6 forward Jalen Billups, who averaged 10.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, but was limited to just seven games because of an injury. Sophomore guard Tyler White averaged 6.0 points and made 27 three-pointers. Junior guard Jordan Jackson is a junior college transfer and has no Division I experience. He averaged 14.9 points last year for Williston State College.
“They have a young team,” Painter said. “They have a big kid (Billups) who is very talented. He has a wide body and can cause some matchup issues. They have a lot of guys who can pass and shoot. They have some quickness at point guard and some guys who can spread out and really shoot. It will be very good for us. Their style can give us trouble.”
Northern Kentucky has a tough weekend. It also plays at No. 1 Kentucky on Sunday.