WEST LAFAYETTE -- In the final minutes of another lethargic loss, a sold-out Mackey Arena was filled with empty seats. Thousands of Purdue fans flooded to the exits, filled with frustration.
After a disappointing 72-58 defeat from the ninth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, the season is spiraling for Purdue.
Every game is critical, especially in the brutally tough Big Ten conference. With postseason hopes dwindling, the Boilermakers faced a prime opportunity in playing a top team on their home court. The arena was packed with fans and the emotions were high. Yet, Purdue didn’t show up.
“I don’t think guys were ready to play,” said senior captain Terone Johnson. “For a game like this, you’ve got to be ready to play.”
So, let’s get this straight. Purdue was playing a highly-ranked team with so much hanging in the balance, yet it didn’t come out ready. Errick Peck, one of Purdue’s other veteran leaders, agreed with Johnson’s assessment.
“We weren’t ready to play,” said Peck, the fifth-year transfer from Cornell. “I can’t out my finger on it or give a specific reason, we just weren’t.”
There are so many words that can describe it, but inexcusable seems to sum it up best. Nobody can blame Purdue fans for bailing on another Boilermaker blunder—not when the team doesn’t show up to play.
So, how does this happen to a program renowned for its blue-collar play?
“Leadership starts at the top,” said head coach Matt Painter, asked how to explain his team’s sluggish, often-absent play.
Painter has always been one to point the thumb, not the finger. The reality is, much of this stems from a depleted culture within the program. It’s Time To Play Hard used to be words the Boilermakers lived by, not an inconvenient reminder.
It’s not that Painter is letting up on the hard-nosed play he was brought up on as a player and assistant under Gene Keady; this is still the top emphasis of every Purdue practice, whether it’s August or March. But the players haven’t bought in.
As Painter admitted, the blame starts at the top. In this case, it begins in the recruiting process. The Boilermakers have brought in talent—the same as the days of Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson—but the work ethic isn’t there.
“We’ve got some young guys that need to sit and watch, to be frank,” Painter later added. “They’re talented, but they don’t understand winning basketball.”
On the opposite bench in Saturday’s game, Painter and Purdue got a glimpse of what it takes to be a consistent winner. Coach Bo Ryan recruits character, and it has led to an NCAA Tournament appearance in each of his 12 seasons.
Before tipoff, Wisconsin junior guard Josh Gasser, one of the team’s leaders, gathered his teammates and delivered a message.
“Be ready,” sophomore forward Sam Dekker relayed in the postgame press conference. “Every possession, we’ve got to bring it. We can’t get outworked today.”
The Badgers came ready to play. The Boilermakers were weary once again.
Even on a three-game slide, Wisconsin was ready to rebound. The Badgers are bound to keep Bo Ryan’s tournament streak alive, yet the players were eager to get better. To use Painter’s words, they understand winning basketball.
“We still have a lot to learn and a lot of basketball left,” Dekker said.
Added sophomore guard Traevon Jackson, asked about getting an important win: “We hold ourselves to such a high standard. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Purdue needs this type of demeanor in its locker room. Once again, it wasn’t there.
Not even 90 seconds in, Purdue sophomore center A.J. Hammons was on the bench with two fouls. This wasn’t a mistake of hard work and hustle; it was a mental lapse which led Wisconsin to early success.
“It didn’t really seem like his head was in the game,” said Johnson. “… That’s just something that messed us up a little bit.”
But Johnson—the Boilermakers’ most experienced player—had his own issues, too. He was sloppy with his shot selection and had several miscues on defense.
The excuses of youth must go away. Purdue’s core is now into its second season of Big Ten play, and the seniors are just as culpable as the freshman.
This is just bad team basketball, where individuals aren’t syncing as one. That’s the greatest difference from Purdue’s glory days—the team-wide desire to win isn’t there. It’s shown in on-court player and postgame press conference words.
“In ten years at a tailgate, nobody’s going to care who did what if you didn’t win the games,” Painter said.
At Purdue, two things are expected of the Boilermaker basketball program: work ethic and wins. Fans have the right to be frustrated with another disappointing team.