Purdue faces a toughness issue -- again.
Did you expect that?
Didn't it seem the Boilers were past that after last year's 16-18 disappointment?
The preseason practices were rugged and encouraging. Unexpectedly close games against Northern Kentucky, Rider and Eastern Michigan, while exposing flaws, showcased down-the-stretch resiliency under duress. A gritty second half against top-five Oklahoma State seemed promising, although the follow-up loss to Washington State was a downer.
Still, beat Butler, thrive with the inside muscle advantage, and a lot of momentum builds toward the Big Ten.
We know how that turned out.
“You're looking for consistency,” coach Matt Painter says. “We have so many guys who are close. There's no doubt that if A.J. Hammons gets into the flow of the game, you've got to play him. Terone Johnson gets in the flow of the game, even though he turns the ball over, he has some productive moments.”
So here are the Boilers (8-3), with one home nonconference tune-up left with tonight's game with Maryland Eastern Shore (2-5) at Mackey Arena.
This should be the season's last breather. On Sunday, they travel to West Virginia (7-4) in what will be perfect Big Ten road preparation before opening conference play at home Dec. 31 against No. 3 Ohio State (10-0).
To win those games, they must play tough and smart.
“We have too many guys forcing things,” Painter says. “We have too many guys with that deer-in-the-headlights look. We have young guys, but after you play 10 games, what the big deal?”
Painter has built his career making tough-minded teams a very big deal. Whatever flaws his players might have had, they played with the kind of physical tenacity well suited to Big Ten and postseason success.
That's surfaced only occasionally the last season and a half, and it disappeared entirely for a crucial second-half stretch Saturday against Butler.
Yes, that's a problem.
“Butler was tougher than us,” Painter said. “I don't want to say they're a tougher basketball team, but they played that way. Obviously if it continues, then they are. They had more grit than us, more determination, and they were more consistent.”
This is coaching through verbal needle, elevating play by challenging players' pride.
Will they respond do it? We'll get a small indication tonight. The big test will come Sunday.
Specifically for Purdue, it means not wasting possessions with turnovers. The Boilers had a season-high18 of them against Butler, 6.5 above their season average
“The No. 1 thing we harped on was taking care of the basketball, not turning the basketball over and giving ourselves a chance,” Painter said.
“Even if we don't have an unbelievably quality possession, at least we give ourselves a chance to rebound the basketball. When you take bad shots early in the shot clock, your rebounding balance isn't good and your transition balance isn't good. We just had way too many turnovers, too many guys forcing things. We have to do a better job taking care of the ball.”
Beyond that, the inside play needs to, well, man up.
Hammons and Jay Simpson are physically imposing players who don't always play like it. For Hammons, it starts with defending without fouling, something that didn't happen against Butler. He fouled out in just 17 minutes, with his 10 points, three rebounds and three blocks suggesting what might have been.
“We don't do a good job of keeping our best players on the floor,” Painter says. “A.J. Hammons has to stay in the game. All his fouls were fouls. Now, he gets fouled two to three times more than he fouls. I know I'm biased, but he does foul. I've got to coach him and get him to a point where he can be in legal guarding position and stay in the game.”
Meanwhile, guard Bryson Scott continues playing beyond his freshman experience. The former Northrop standout earned his second Big Ten freshman of the week honors after scoring 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting against Butler. He also had four rebounds, three assists and three steals. It was his second straight game of scoring at least 15 points.
For the season, he averages 10.8 points and 2.5 rebounds. He has a team-leading 15 steals. That's the most of any Big Ten freshman.
As far as tonight, Maryland Eastern Shore is as close to a guaranteed victory as you can get. The Hawks are 0-5 on the road. They have 75 assists and 95 turnovers. They shoot just 38.5 percent from the field and 30.3 percent from three-point range.
They are led by freshman guard Hakeem Baxter, who averages 16.4 points. Last week he was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rookie of the week after scoring a career-high 28 points against Maryland Baltimore County.
Maryland Eastern Shore has one other player in double figures -- guard KyRee Jones at 16.0 points. He's coming off a 21-point effort at Oregon State that included 5-for-8 three-point shooting. Francis Izeiru, a 6-10 center, leads in rebounding at 6.4.
But for Purdue, it shouldn't matter. If it wants to be a Big Ten factor, it needs to play like it.