What do you do when your best leader rarely plays?
For Purdue, you struggle.
And yes, with a four-game losing streak that has dropped the youthful Boilers to 13-9 and likely ended their NCAA tourney hopes, struggle is everywhere you look.
Consider coach Matt Painter calls senior forward Travis Carroll the Boilers' best leader. In a lot of ways, that's a good thing. Carroll does things the right way on and off the court. He always has. He cares about the team and the sport. He always has.
But the 6-9 senior from Danville, Ind., lacks the skill and athleticism to be a Big Ten factor. He has never turned his high school offensive prowess into college productivity.
So more and more Carroll watches games rather than play in them. For the season he averages 7.7 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds. There's no guarantee he'll play tonight when Purdue hosts Minnesota (15-7).
Still, Carroll takes the high road, and Painter has noticed.
“He works hard; he's got a lot of patience; and he helps the younger big guys,” Painter said. “He's done a great job of coming to work every day and being committed. No matter how much he plays, he shows up the next day, he works and plugs away and always has a positive word for his teammates.”
Carroll hasn't played more than 17 minutes in a game this season. In four games, he hasn't played at all. He has 29 career starts, but 20 came as a sophomore. He's on pace to play his fewest minutes as a college player.
And yet, in a sport where action speaks louder than words, having your best leader see minimal action is a problem.
“There's no question about it,” Painter said. “You have guys who haven't been through it or aren't as accountable as your best leader, who is not out there. Travis has done everything in his power to help this program. I'm proud of what he's done. No matter what happens he's positive and does the right things and says the right things.”
The Boilers' lack of veteran players is part of the problem. Senior guard Terone Johnson, the only player to have started every game, leads the team in scoring (12.8 points) and is second with 50 assists. But he has not shown consistent on-court leadership -- partly reflected in his 62.8 percent free throw shooting -- that is crucial for a young team.
The two other seniors -- Sterling Carter and Errick Peck -- are in their first year in the program as fifth-year transfers. There are no scholarship juniors on the roster. Seven players are either freshmen or sophomores.
That only works when young players have a maturity beyond their years, such as former Boilers Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore once did.
These Boilers lack such youthful maturity.
“It's big,” Painter said. “You want your classes full. You want two to three seniors, and two to three juniors. We don't have that.
“Still, teams in our league are winning with youth. We have to play with a maturity. We haven't been consistent in that area. We haven't been consistent enough to win. That's what we have to be able to do.”
In the meantime Painter pushes to accelerate the maturity process.
“As a coach you try to help them and the best thing is to lead by example. So, instead of constantly talking to a player about it, they can see the example right in front of them. That allows older guys to be like assistant coaches and makes for a special dynamic in terms of getting better. It really establishes your culture, which is what you're talking about.
“Having a good basketball culture within your program starts with older guys doing what they're supposed to and making sure others are doing what they're supposed to, especially when there are no coaches present.”
As far as developing leaders, Painter said, “You try to develop a sense of accountability. Anytime somebody is accountable, he can be a leader. It's doing what you're supposed to do.
“Anybody can sit in the huddle and say the right things, but are you doing the right things. If you're doing the right things and saying the right things, then you're in a position to lead no matter what your age is. It's an action first and foremost.”
Minnesota, which beat Purdue 82-79 last month, has lost two straight and three of its last four. The losing streak came without guard Andre Hollins, who is sidelined with an ankle injury. He isn't expected to play tonight. He averages a team-leading 15.5 points.
Guard Austin Hollins averages 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds. He has struggled with his three-point shooting, averaging just 29.7 percent beyond the arc.
Guard DeAndre Mathieu averages 11.5 points and has a team-leading 96 assists. Forward Malik Smith averages 10.6 points. Center Elliott Eliason averages 8.0 rebounds.
“It was a little bit of a blow for them to lose Andre Hollins,” Painter said. “Smith has been able to knock down some shots. He had eight threes against Nebraska. Austin Hollins is struggling with his shot, but he's been in the league a long time, does a lot of things. He can get hot and burn you. He's proven that. You have to respect him.
“We've been in position to win some games and we haven't made the necessary plays. We have to be tougher and smarter and more consistent.”