Matt Painter can’t wait to arrive at work, now. Not long before, his job was a bit more tedious.
“A month ago, you’re trying to beg people to do stuff—the basic things,” Painter explained. “Now, they’re fun to coach and everyone’s on the same page.”
Such is the byproduct of a young team growing up. Far too often in nonconference play and into the early portion of the Big Ten slate, Purdue appeared uncomfortable. The losses stacked up and its season appeared to be spiraling out of control.
Purdue is playing to its potential, and is doing so at the right time. With the Big Ten Tournament opening on Thursday, the Boilermakers have momentum on their side. There’s only one way to make that matter on a postseason résumé.
With an overall record of 15-16 (8-10), the Boilermakers only hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament is winning the Big Ten championship. The turnaround offers a bittersweet taste.
“That’s really great,” junior guard Terone Johnson said of their lone possibility. “But it’s also maddening to the fact that we could be a tournament team if we had turned it around a lot earlier.”
The Boilermakers are playing their best basketball of the season now. Their final week of the regular season brought a road upset of No. 17 Wisconsin, a near-upset of No. 7 Michigan, and a beatdown of Minnesota. Yet, Purdue now regrets its early-season losses to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan, among others.
“It’s the end of the season and we want to finish strong,” said freshman center A.J. Hammons. “We’re clicking a little bit more, but we should’ve been clicking earlier in the season.”
Before Purdue’s practice on Monday afternoon, there were no clichés uttered nor feel-good anecdotes. The Boilermakers must win four consecutive games, taking a title in the nation’s most talented conference.
It’s a humbling task, yet the team is optimistic.
“We feel like we’re very capable,” Johnson said. “We feel like our goals are still out in front of us. It’s definitely not going to be an easy road, obviously, playing in our conference.”
The difference for Purdue is confidence. In nonconference play—during those bad losses which spoiled the regular season—the Boilermakers lacked an identity. The freshmen were learning college basketball on the fly. Now, A.J. Hammons and Ronnie Johnson are comfortable in their roles, while fellow first-year starter Rapheal Davis enters the Big Ten Tournament as the conference’s reigning freshman of the week.
Purdue has a swagger on its side that was lacking when the season started, and even just one month ago. The daunting task of running the table feels attainable, now.
“It’s a big challenge for us, but no challenge is impossible,” Davis said. “We can do it, I think we can do it, everybody around here thinks we can do it. We’ve got the confidence, now.”
First up for the seventh-seeded Boilermakers is Nebraska, a team which has greatly improved since Purdue earned a 65-56 road victory in January. With such a tremendous trial looming ahead, the Boilers must stay focused on their next game—and just that.
“We understand that’s the only way it is,” senior forward D.J. Byrd said. “You can’t look ahead, you can’t look in the past, you’ve got to be able to play the next game—whatever that may be. In this case, it’s Nebraska. We’ll prepare the same way and come out and play as hard as we can. That’s what I expect.”
If Purdue can carry the momentum forward, it can make meaning of a subpar season.