In the end, the Boilers aren't quite ready. Talent is there. Potential is, too. But the tenacity to thrive at crunch time, the focus to make big plays at big moments, the ability to make free throws and layups, comes and goes.
Far too often in this roller coaster season, it has gone.
And so coach Matt Painter has this directive above all others.
“Just play well.”
Basketball, he says, is a simple game. Take the unnecessary complexity out of it and it comes down to decision making. Make good decisions and you win. Don't, and you lose.
“From a defensive standpoint,” he said, “we put ourselves in bad positions when we don't do what we're supposed to do on offense — when we don't take care of the ball, take an ill-advised shot or when we shoot and our safety doesn't get back.
“That happened twice (against Nebraska). This is the end of February. Our safety has to get back or they're going to run out and throw alley oops or dunk the ball. It leads to easy baskets. It's a Cardinal sin in basketball. We have some fundamental breakdowns as the game goes on.
“If we can make better decisions offensively, we'll help ourselves defensively. Then we'll do a better job in the half court. We have to keep the ball in front of us. I could go on and on. We just have to be more consistent.”
Here's a bottom-line truth — Purdue is young, and the brutally veteran Big Ten mostly eats its young.
Here's another truth — the Boilers built their tradition-rich program by out-working other teams.
That's no longer true.
“Everybody is taking inventory on trying to do what we need as a group, and each guy has got to be able to dig deeper and just play harder,” Painter said. “We have too many guys playing for themselves. That's something that comes with immaturity, with inexperience and with guys not understanding winning basketball. I think you give a little bit and work a little bit with some younger guys, but when guys have been here before …
“We have a couple guys who need to be more fundamentally sound. A couple guys need to just flat play harder. We have too many guys just standing out there watching.”
The Boilers have just two long-term seniors and only one — guard Terone Johnson — is a major contributor when he's not battling lack of shooting confidence. The other senior, Travis Carroll, hasn't developed the way Painter had hoped, so he barely plays. Still, Painter has called Carroll the team's best leader, which speaks plenty to Carroll's character as well as team dynamics. When your best leader spends more time on the bench than on the court, you have problems.
If you've followed the Boilers, you know there have been problems.
Painter signed a couple of fifth-year seniors in Errick Peck and Sterling Carter, and they've had their moments, although not season-changing ones.
For Carter, his college career is over, the consequence of yet another Purdue athlete torn ACL. Painter, who lost a shot at a Final Four when Robbie Hummel blew out his knee several years ago, keeps perspective.
“It's discouraging for him. We'll be able to push on and find a way. It's disappointing for him. He deserves better. He worked hard. These things aren't fair. You have to embrace what happens and handle the adversity. Things like that happen for a reason. You have to learn from it and be a better person because of it.
“He did everything in his power to help us be successful. He couldn't consistently make jumpers, but he found his way into the starting lineup. He was the best defender in the backcourt with the least amount of experience in the backcourt as far as how we do things.”
Purdue doesn't have any scholarship juniors. That means this is basically a sophomore and freshman team.
As we mentioned, the Big Ten eats its young.
Purdue needed senior Terone Johnson to have his best season. It hasn't happened, although it's not for lack of effort. Johnson's shooting touch has deserted him, especially from the free throw line, and it's hurt his confidence.
He's struggled down the stretch just when Purdue needed him to be peaking. He didn't start at Nebraska, breaking a streak of 57 straight starts. The goal wasn't to punish but to provide a spark. It worked, and it didn't. He led the Boilers in scoring — with just nine points.
At times, center A.J Hammons is the Big Ten's best big man. He is 7-foot and 260 pounds. He dominates when he chooses. He disappears when focus wanders. All too often that focus is a wandering target. If he ever figures it out, look out.
The Boilers have gotten significant contributions from a pair of Fort Wayne products — sophomore Rapheal Davis (South Side) and freshman Bryson Scott (Northrop) — but inconsistency has limited them.
Free throw shooting has not been a strength. Purdue ranks last in the Big Ten, and given games often come down to the final minutes, that's been a major obstacle.
Under Painter the Boilers played in six straight NCAA tourneys, making two Sweet 16s. They slipped to 16-18 last season. This was supposed to be a return-to-relevance year. With a 15-13 record, it hasn't happened.
What can be done?
Keep it simple.
Keep it true.
Just play well.To make the NCAA Tourney: The Boilers need to win the Big Ten tourney title and its automatic bid. It is extremely unlikely to earn an at-large bid.
To make the NIT: Purdue needs to finish with a winning record
To make the CBI or CollegeInsider.com Tourney: Ideally Purdue needs to finish at least .500, although the Boilers made the 32-team CBI field last year with a 15-17 record. The CIT does not allow a team with a losing record to participate.