Last season's Purdue-Xavier game was an hour and a half of joy followed by a half hour of prolonged agony. As you no doubt remember, Purdue was the dominant team on the floor and led by 19 points with 10 minutes to go before falling apart in sections. Literally. Robbie Hummel suffered pretty much an entire body cramp as Purdue got outscored 30-8 in the final 10 minutes of play.
Sadly, Purdue saw this happen more than once as we got almost a carbon copy a few weeks later in a loss to Butler at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This is a different team though, and I think I saw some of it Wednesday night in the win at Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
First off, Hummel, Ryne Smith, Kelsey Barlow, and Lewis Jackson are all gone. Barlow was kicked off the team in the middle of last season and the other three graduated. D.J. Byrd is the lone senior on the roster who plays major minutes, while freshmen Donnie Hale, Ronnie Johnson, and A.J. Hammons played major minutes against Clemson. Even Rapheal Davis and Jay Simpson played in place of other, older players.
The game against Clemson was very similar to the Xavier loss last season. Purdue was dominant behind 20 points in the first half from Byrd and led 42-22 at the break. After an early three-pointer by Anthony Johnson made it 45-22 early in the second half the Tigers finally woke up for a 9-0 run. It was at that point that many fans feared the game was going the way of Butler/Xavier last year.
It did not, however. Purdue calmed down, hit a few key shots (mostly by Terone Johnson) and also played well defensively to keep them at bay. The lead only got under 10 once, with just over a minute to go. Purdue figured out how to close the game, and it couldn't do that at this point last season.
As you can tell, this team is extremely young, and we're going through those growing pains. Terone Johnson missed the opener against a very good and experienced Bucknell team and Purdue missed too many free throws in a loss. Against Villanova a horrible late call against Purdue forced overtime and led to a loss. Against Oregon State a very poor first half put Purdue behind a lot, but behind a great second half by Hammons it was still tied with two minutes to go.
Before the Clemson game Purdue really struggled to shoot the three, but Byrd started 6 of 7 from long range in the first half and Anthony Johnson got involved there too. In all but the last two games Purdue has been awful from the free throw line too.
Purdue is a much more post-oriented team this season and it has paid off with solid rebounding. Hammons is a freshman, but he has the makings of being a very good true center. He has posts around him in Hale, Simpson, Jacob Lawson, Sandi Marcius, and Travis Carroll. This also allowed Byrd to move to his more natural position of the three and Carroll to the four.
Our backcourt is rather thin with only the three Johnsons getting major minutes. Senior Dru Anthrop may play some, but he is a former walk-on that is now on scholarship as the only senior other than Byrd. Terone and Ronnie Johnson have a great rapport because they are brothers. Just about the only point guard in the Midwest was better than Ronnie in this year's recruiting class was Kevin Ferrell at Indiana. He and Ferrell also attended high school 3 miles apart, so they played multiple times against each other.
Purdue will make freshmen mistakes, but they can also play at a very high level as they showed for 20 minutes against Clemson in blowing an ACC team out of its own gym to start. It is a team going through growing pains but has a very high ceiling when it all comes together. I think Wednesday's win at Clemson might have been that first step.
Clearly, this game is going to have some interesting matchups in it. Both teams have a lot of unproven veterans trying to mesh with talented incoming players on the fly to make things work. There is a wide variety of potential outcomes for the game. We'll be back later on today with our preview, but we can't thank Trevor and the whole gang over at Hammer and Rails enough for shooting us a little inside information.