There is no easy way to get a over a loss like the one that ended Purdue's season a year ago. The Boilermakers led Cincinnati by seven with 48 seconds left in the round of 64, only to watch Bearcats guard Troy Caupain force overtime with a layup that seemed to hang on the rim for a week. Before Purdue knew what hit 'em, they were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.
Purdue fans probably thought they deserved to catch a break after such a devastating end to what was otherwise a feel-good season, and they would get one a few weeks later. Five-star big man Caleb Swanigan decommitted from Michigan State less than a month after making his verbal pledge, opening up the door for Purdue to grab its first Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana since Glenn 'Big Dog' Robinson in the early '90s.
Swanigan, at 6'8 and 275 pounds, joins what was already going to a bruising front court. A.J. Hammons is back for his senior year and could be one of the best centers in America this season. Isaac Haas, all 7'2, 300 pounds of him, seems poised to build on a promising freshman campaign.
With so much size, Purdue should have a physical defensive identity and lots of a high-low action between the big men offensively. Think of this team as college basketball's answer to the Memphis Grizzlies. The only problem: with Jon Octeus done after one impressive season as a graduate transfer, who is supposed to be Purdue's Mike Conley?
Johnny Hill, a transfer from Texas-Arlington via Illinois State, might be Purdue's best choice at point guard, but sophomore P.J. Thompson will get a shot, too. What Purdue really needs from the lead guard spot is shooting, but Hill has only made 16 threes in three college seasons, and Thompson hit just 28 percent of his attempts last year.
Things are more settled on the wing, where Raphael Davis comes back for his senior season after winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a junior. Vince Edwards, at 6'7 and 220 pounds, will be another physical presence installed at the three. Junior Kendall Stephens will also be vital as the best shooter on a team that desperately needs players to hit jumpers to open up the paint for the big men.
Purdue got back to the NCAA Tournament last season after consecutive seasons of sub-.500 ball. If last year's success saved Matt Painter's job, his ability to land Swanigan this year has Purdue poised to make a serious run at Maryland and the rest of the Big Ten's annual powerhouses. There's a lot of two-way talent here, Painter just needs to figure out a way to make it all mesh.
Purdue went from a mediocre defense to a good one in 2014. The Boilermakers' defensive efficiency jumped from No. 100 to No. 58, according to KenPom, thanks to an ability to hold opposing offenses to only 42.3 percent shooting on two-point shots, the No. 13 mark in the country. Now Purdue is trying to become a great defensive team, and there appears to be a clear path to get there.
Every elite defense needs a stout rim protector, and Purdue has one of the best in the country in Hammons. He's led the Big Ten in blocks the last three years and his 12.3 percent block rate ranked No. 11 in the country last year, according to KenPom. He has a great sense of anticipation for challenging shots, and his size (7', 260 pounds) and length (7'3 wingspan) are a matchup nightmare for just about every other big man in college basketball.
Purdue also has an ace wing defender in Davis, the conference's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He's a tireless worker who held Michigan's Caris LeVert to six points on 2-of-8 shooting last year, and also flustered Wisconsin's Sam Dekker into a six-point (on 2-of-7 shooting) game in their first meeting.
For Purdue to take another jump defensively, two things need to happen: it needs to limit good looks from three-point range and finally start forcing some turnovers. Last year, opponents hit 35.1 percent of their threes, which ranked Purdue No. 211 in the nation. Of the points Purdue gave up, only 27.3 percent came off three-pointers, which ranked No. 210 in the nation.
As for forcing turnovers, Purdue just doesn't do it: both their turnover rate (7.6 percent) and steal rate (8.3 percent) placed No. 263 in the country. This has been an issue with Painter's defenses for the last four years, where the Boilermakers have never been better than No. 203 (and as bad as No. 311) in steal rate. Still, it wasn't always this way under Painter: in 2007, on a team led by Carl Landry and Chris Kramer, Purdue finished No. 24 in turnover percentage.
Purdue's three best players are Hammons (7', 261 pounds), Swanigan (6'8, 275 pounds) and Haas (7'2, 300 pounds). Swanigan showed a solid mid-range jumper at McDonald's All-American practices, but all three are traditional interior scorers rather than floor stretchers. That means Purdue needs everyone else on the floor to be able to hit an outside jumpshot to prevent defenses from collapsing when the ball goes inside.
To this point, only Kendall Stephens (38.4 percent shooting on 5.6 attempts last year) has shown a consistent ability to hit threes. Davis has never shot above 30.3 percent from deep in three years at school, and Edwards only hit 32.7 percent of 2.7 attempts per game as a freshman. If even just Edwards can improve considerably in that area this year, Purdue is going to be a lot tougher to defend.
Purdue's other big question mark this year (who plays point guard?) only exasperates the shooting problems, because, as mentioned above, neither Hill or Thompson have previously shown themselves to be shooters. Smotherman is quality athlete on the wing off the bench, but he can't shoot at all (5-for-33 from deep in two years).
Freshman Ryan Cline, a local product from Carmel, Ind., could be an answer. Ranked the No. 141 player in the class of 2015 by Rivals, Cline enters college with a reputation as a great shooter. If the defense can hold up for stretches with him and Stephens on the wings, two of Swanigan/Haas/Hammons could be unstoppable close to the basket.