Purdue Surprising Atop the Big Ten
by Trevor Whenham - 02/19/2008
It's been a season of surprises in college basketball - the unlikely success of Drake, the toughness of Duke, the depth of the Pac-10, the emergence of St. Mary's. There isn't a story as impressive or surprising, though, as what Purdue has done. They came into the season with few expectations because of their incredibly young lineup - starting three freshmen and two sophomores. They didn't elevate those expectations with December losses to Wofford and Iowa State, two games in which the Boilermakers were heavily favored. Since then, though, they have been almost unstoppable. They have lost just once in conference play, they have fared well against the elite of their conference, and they are at the top of the Big Ten standings. They have covered 11 of their last 12, and have emerged as perhaps the best bet among the top 25. Despite all of their success, though, they are still under the radar of the public, and their players are far from household names. Here's a look at how the team has done what they have done, and whether they can keep doing it.
The roster - Experience was obviously a problem coming into the conference season. Five of the top six scorers in non-conference play were new to the team. That didn't create a lot of faith in the potential this year. They were a talented crew, but not freakishly so. That meant that the need for a year to grow into themselves seemed likely. That hasn't been the case. Leading the way for the Boilermakers are four in-state freshmen. E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel are virtually tied for the team lead in scoring, and they have shared the load of leading this team to their surprising results. Hummel also leads the way in assists and rebounds, though neither average (2.8 and 5.9) is particularly impressive. Of the two, Moore probably has more star potential, but there aren't many programs in the country that wouldn't have a prominent spot for Hummel. Both players are improving as the season goes along - Moore has exceeded his season scoring average in six of his last seven games, and Hummel had 21 and 24 points in recent big wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State. Sophomore Keaton Grant is the third scoring threat. His game is back in form again in his last two games after a six-game slump. He'd been the hot hand before that, though. That's the strength of this Purdue team - their depth and selflessness means that there has usually been a player ready to step up and take the leadership role.
The coach - It wasn't his first assistant coaching gig, but Purdue coach Matt Painter learned the coaching game as an assistant under Bruce Webber at Southern Illinois. After five years helping to build that program, Painter took over when Webber moved to Illinois. He led the Salukis to a 25-5 record, and wrote his own ticket in the process. Purdue was in the market for an eventual replacement for the legendary Gene Keady at the time, and Painter was a perfect fit. He'd played for Keady at Purdue, helping the team make three tournament appearances and becoming a captain in his senior year. He was an associate under Keady for a year to help a smooth transition, then he was handed the keys in 2005. They were just 9-19 his first year, but made the tournament last year and knocked out Arizona in the first round before losing to eventual champ Florida. What this all boils down to is one thing - Painter is the real deal. He can coach as well as anyone, and he clearly can hold his own as a recruiter. Painter is a huge key to this team's success, and he is a good reason to bet that they won't trip up badly down the stretch.
The record - The non-conference season wasn't particularly impressive. Besides the losses to Wofford and Iowa State, they lost to Missouri and Clemson, and didn't cover as heavy favorites against Indiana State, Ball State, and Florida International. Their only impressive win was against Louisville, and the Cardinals were so banged up at the time that that wasn't nearly as impressive as it would be now. Overall, they were just 3-6 ATS in non-conference play and didn't scare anyone coming into conference play. But then something changed. They didn't cover in their opener against Michigan, but they still won by seven. After that they covered six straight, interrupted that streak when they barely squeaked by Iowa in a one-point thriller, and then covered five more. Their only conference loss came in their second game. They lost by three at Michigan State, but they were 13-point underdogs so even that went much better than expected. Over the course of their 11-game winning streak they have beaten Wisconsin and Illinois once each, and Michigan State and Ohio State once, so they have proven themselves against most of the better teams in the conference. That being said, it seems a little bit hard to believe that they are as good as they have been recently given how weak they were in non-conference play. Their youth and inexperience can explain a good portion of the improvement, but it still seems like this team could be ripe for a fall back down to earth down the stretch.