WEST LAFAYETTE – Devoted Purdue men's basketball fans will vividly recall a game with Wofford a little over five years ago, in which Boilermaker coach Matt Painter started four freshmen (JaJuan Johnson, Scott Martin, Robbie Hummel, and E'Twaun Moore) and his team lost 69-66 at Mackey Arena, no less.
On Sunday, Painter again demonstrated no fear in going with youth and started three freshmen against Penn State. This time the Boilermakers prevailed, winning easily over the frigid-shooting Nittany Lions 60-42. But much like that group of youngsters from the 2007-08 season, which took some lumps along the way, this current Boiler squad has the potential to eventually get the Boiler Nation rocking, just as Hummel, Johnson and Moore did in their day.
“The whole freshmen class has done a good job,” Painter said. “They've come into an opportunity where we need them to play. That helps them to a degree, but it hurts us also.”
Yes, it has at times.
Purdue (8-8, 2-2 Big Ten) opened this season by losing to Bucknell (70-65) in West Lafayette. But there was a point early in Sunday's game when the three starting freshmen (center A.J. Hammons, forward Rapheal Davis and guard Ronnie Johnson) had outscored Penn State by themselves.
Davis made his presence felt early with seven first half points, while Johnson and Hammons got better throughout the game.
Davis finished with 10 points in his second career start, but it was his energy – and positive attitude – that the Fort Wayne native carries himself with that is leaving a lasting impression with his coach.
“Rapheal has just continued to keep a good attitude and play hard,” Painter said.
He grabbed five rebounds in 22 minutes and was particularly effective as a cutter away from the ball and Hammons found him open for lay-ins on a couple of occasions.
“(Davis) gives us energy,” Painter said. “It's been a difficult transition because he's kind of in between player.”
In the case of Hammons, he is simply getting better with every sunrise.
The 7-footer notched a double-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in 29 minutes, and his passing skills out of double teams, coupled with a oh-so-soft shooting touch, will soon have NBA scouts mapquesting their way to West Lafayette.
“I think A.J. has a chance to be a special player,” Painter said. “He just needs to keep working at the little things in being a really good post guy.”
Johnson scored a team-best 13 points and played all but three minutes. Painter said that his point guard is making strides defensively, but still needs to improve his free throw shooting.
These young players are gaining experience because of their talent, but also because Painter doesn't have anyone better at the moment.
“A.J. and Ronnie, especially, have been able to play through their mistakes,” Painter said. “Most freshmen don't get the opportunity to play through their mistakes, because there are other guys in place. Ronnie has done a good job of making improvements.”
Redshirt freshman forward Donnie Hale played 14 minutes off of the bench on Sunday and scored four points to go with a couple of rebounds.
Those four first-year players form a nucleus with classmate forward Jay Simpson (sitting out this season due to injury) and sophomores Jacob Lawson (forward) and Anthony Johnson (guard), which will be with the program for a long time coming.
The Boilermakers aren't going to compete for a conference title this season, and probably won't go anywhere in March other than for spring break. However, there have been glimpses this season, Sunday being one, where Purdue fans – and Painter for that matter – can envision what this group can ultimately become.
“It does help to (sit) and watch and learn,” Painter said. “At times we've needed (the freshmen) to do that, but we haven't had the depth. I do like each individual guy. Each guy is on a different track in terms of development. Hopefully, at the end of the day, end of the season, it can kind of show them what they can be and what they can do if they put a lot of time into it.”