WEST LAFAYETTE -- When Mackey Arena closed its doors last March, the Purdue program was in a sad state.
A season that opened with promise crashed during liftoff. There was a sub-.500 record, a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, and a second-round departure from the CBI. Oh man, remember the CBI?
The feeling at Mackey Arena was much different on Wednesday. Those doors opened for the first time since Santa Clara dismissed the Boilermakers from that weird tournament, and in came more than 7,000 fans in black and gold. Hope has been restored in West Lafayette.
The answers to those key questions won’t come until later. A sloppy 80-73 win over the Greyhounds offered little reason for inspiration.
Purdue took the court raring to go. Though, when the ball went in the air, there were numerous struggles. Indianapolis led up until the final two minutes of the first half.
“I thought Indianapolis just played harder than us,” said coach Matt Painter of Purdue’s slow start. “I thought they played like the game meant more to them.”
Things turned in the first half’s final minutes, with Purdue turning an eight-point deficit into a seven-point halftime lead. The Boilermakers opened a 17-point lead at one point in the second half, then fought for their lives to close out a win.
As a whole, there was much to take—many positives, and also plenty to improve.
Pro: Terone Johnson showed he’s ready to take over a game. The senior guard posted 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting, showing he wants to be the guy for the Boilermakers.
Con: Purdue shot under 40 percent—39.1 percent, to be exact—and dealt with cold spurts throughout the early part of the game. Shot after shot clanked off the rim in long stretches.
Pro: The freshmen came to play. Kendall Stephens connected on three from long range, while Bryson Scott added 11 points, including nine free throws. Basil Smotherman also showed flashes. Much of the reason for optimism this year stems from these freshmen. In practice and now this first exhibition, the early returns are encouraging.
Con: Purdue struggled to gain a rhythm on offense. At times, the Boilermakers didn’t look comfortable. Scott struggled from the field, as did Sterling Carter and Jay Simpson. The go-to scorers on offense were cold in this one.
Pro: The Boilermakers hit 24 of 35 free throws. Does that number seem high? That’s because it’s really high. The new hand-checking rule revealed its ugly head in this game. Fortunately for Purdue, it took advantage of chances at the charity stripe.
Con: 24 Purdue fouls. And many of those were due to the new hand-checking rule. This is going to be a killer for many teams in the early part of the season. Indianapolis hit on just 53.8 percent of its free throws. Yet, better teams won’t struggle like that. The Boilermakers need to clean this up.
This is just a small sampling of takeaways from this first showing of the new Boilermakers. There’s much to be pleased with, but surely a lot to grow from.
“I thought we made a lot of mistakes, if you ask me—defensively and offensively,” said senior guard Terone Johnson. “But we’re ready to learn from it. Everybody’s got a good attitude.”
Now, the Boilermakers go back to the drawing board. Painter will have plenty to teach from this one. He’ll start by assessing the point guard position, where Scott, the freshman, earned the starting nod over returner Ronnie Johnson.
This decision came from preseason practices, where Painter felt Scott fought harder for the opportunity.
“Hopefully, this will motivate [Johnson],” said Painter after the game.
Unsure of his role going forward, Scott added: “I’m just doing what Painter wants me to do. He asked me to step up and be the starting point guard.”
Painter will undoubtedly have a conversation with Stephens, who impressed with his long-distance stroke, but also passed on some open looks.
“He doesn’t like me passing up shots,” Stephens said.
Perhaps the Boilermakers’ biggest question mark involves sophomore center A.J. Hammons, suspended for this game and the next two, including the regular-season opener. Will he become the star that many have pegged him to be?
This is just one of many things Purdue fans were wondering as they entered Mackey Arena for the first time this season. There’s great optimism in the air, but the Boilermakers must live up to their promise this time.