How does Purdue stop the losing, beat rival Indiana and restore juice to a fading basketball season?
Good point guard play is a good start.
Coach Matt Painter, who has had much to agonize over in this 14-10 season, said he has that going for him.
“They've done a better job,” he said. “They have really sacrificed for the team.”
Sophomore Ronnie Johnson and freshman Bryson Scott have elevated their play by reducing their offense. They shoot less, set up teammates more.
While it hasn't produced much in the way of recent victories -- Purdue has lost five of its last six games -- it does offer encouragement for a team that badly needs it entering Saturday's game against Indiana (14-10).
Take last Saturday's loss at Ohio State. Johnson had six points, three assists and one turnover. Scott, the former Northrop standout, didn't take a shot in 15 minutes while setting up teammates. He finished with two assists and two turnovers against one of the nation's top defensive backcourts.
“Ronnie and Bryson were good,” Painter said. “They did a good job of getting their teammates involved. We would see more assists if we had finished better. They were really locked in.”
In the previous game against Minnesota, Johnson had eight assists and one turnover along with 11 points. Scott has only shot three times (making one) in the last three games after shooting 22 times in his previous two games. In his last four games he only has four turnovers.
“It's just being the quintessential point guard where you get everybody involved first, getting people into the rhythm of the game,” Painter said. “That gets contagious when your point guard does those things.
“It's been hard for Bryson. He was a score-first guy coming from high school (averaging 23.5 points as a senior with 2,042 career points) and now you need him to distribute and make good decisions. We still want him to score, but we don't want him taking on two to three people. When he draws the defense, just make that next pass. He did a good job of that against Ohio State.”
Painter also has worked to restore senior guard Terone Johnson's confidence. Johnson has scored 11 total points in his last two games on 5-for-22 shooting. He's missed his last seven free throw attempts going back to the Jan. 21 Northwestern game.
Painter said he and Johnson have watched film of his shots from the field and from the line.
“He's been out of rhythm,” Painter said. “Some of his misses were good shots that were way off.
“During a game you want to take shots in rhythm. Some he's taking in rhythm, but just missing. Others he's not. You just do your best to watch film and try to get yourself in that position in practice, go at game speed and just work on it.
“You have to get it worked out. It gets mental. It just does. It's part of basketball. The greatest shooters and scorers in the world go through tough times. You have to work your way out of it.”
Purdue hasn't played since Saturday. Painter said the focus has been more on the Boilers than the Hoosiers.
“We worry about ourselves. It's important for us to take care of the ball and give ourselves a chance. We've had way too many turnovers. If you have that many turnovers, you won't beat good people. We've kept the focus on ourselves and taking care of the ball and trying to be better at what we do.”
One of Saturday's more intriguing matchups will be between A.J. Hammons of Purdue and Noah Vonleh, two of the Big Ten's best bigmen. Hammons is a 7-foot, 251-pound sophomore. Vonleh is a 6-10, 240-pound freshman.
Their numbers are similar. Hammons averages 10.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. He shoots 51.0 percent from the field and has taken 165 shots. He is 0-for-4 from three-point range.
Vonleh averages 11.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He shoots 54.2 percent from the field and is 11-for-19 from three-point range. He's taken 166 shots.
Both have turnover problems. Hammons has 14 assists and 61 turnovers. Vonleh has 13 assists and 55 turnovers.
“For us, we have to do a good job of getting A.J. the ball and he has to do a good job of making good decisions and not turning it over,” Painter said.
“When he shoots on balance and takes his time and let's things come to him, he's pretty effective. But he's had too many turnovers. He has to a do a better job of helping us as a team if he's going to get the ball that much.”
Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounds. His potential has drawn NBA attention. Some draft experts project him as a lottery pick if he leaves school after this season.
“Vonleh is a good young player,” Painter said. “He can really rebound. He has a nose for the ball.
“He doesn't shoot a lot of perimeter shots, but when he does, he's very effective. He can drive and shoot from the perimeter. He's good around the basket. If you give him an angle, he's very effective as a finisher.
“He's a talented guy. You have ups and downs as a young player, but when he gets the ball in scoring position, he really gives them that dimension. He's a tough matchup because of his quickness and athleticism. You saw his real ability, especially on the defensive end, when they had the confidence to put him on someone like Michigan's Glenn Robinson. He chased him around the court. That speaks volumes about his mobility.”