Two years ago, Purdue was just trying to make the NCAA tournament. The Boilermakers had finished under .500 in consecutive seasons, and the seat beneath Matt Painter was getting warmer. Painter has quieted that talk with back-to-back trips to the big dance, but more success has only reacquainted the program with how cruel college basketball’s postseason can be. In 2015, Purdue blew a seven-point lead with 48 seconds left against Cincinnati and lost in overtime. Last season, the Boilermakers choked away a 14-point lead with under five minutes left against Little Rock to lose in the round of 64 for the second straight year.
The heartbreaking ending obscured the fact that last season’s Boilermakers were undeniably impressive — No. 21 in offense and No. 19 in defense, per KenPom. The core of that team returns this season, with the notable exception of star center A.J. Hammons. The silver lining for Purdue is that they’re better equipped to handle the loss of a stud big man than almost any other team in the country.
The front court will once again be the strength of the team. Expectations for this season changed when Caleb Swanigan decided to return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA draft. Arguably the most decorated recruit in program history, Swanigan was a beast on the glass as a freshman (No. 20 in defensive rebound rate, per KenPom) while shooting 52 percent on two-pointers. He’ll carry a bigger offensive burden this season and should be the team’s primary scoring option.
Swanigan will be paired next to junior Isaac Haas, who replaces Hammons in the middle. At 7'2, 297 pounds, Haas was a per-minute marvel last season, averaging 9.8 points in only 14.3 minutes per game. That’s 27.4 points per 40, for those scoring at home. Haas is limited athletically, but he has a nice touch around the rim and it’s almost impossible to score over the top of him. He’s also a sneaky good free throw shooter, making 71 percent of his attempts last season.
Junior wing Vince Edwards is Purdue’s third star. An athletic 6’7 slasher, Edwards made major strides as a shooter last season by making 40.7 percent of his threes. He’s also led Purdue in assists each of his first two years in school. Swanigan gets most of the hype, but Edwards should be an NBA prospect in his own right with a strong season.
It isn’t easy to replace a two-way center as good as Hammons, but Purdue should be able to maintain its identity as a physical team that controls the paint on both ends. At this point, they’re probably due for some better luck in March.
PG P.J. Thompson, junior
SG Dakota Mathias, junior
SF Vince Edwards, junior
PF Caleb Swanigan, sophomore
C Isaac Hayes, junior
Key reserves: F Jacquil Taylor (sophomore), PG Spike Albrecht (senior), PG Carsen Edwards (freshman), SG Ryan Cline (sophomore), SF Basil Smotherman (junior)
How Purdue can succeed: Dominating the interior on both ends
Purdue has finished with a top 20 defense six times in Painter’s 11 seasons. The common denominator is great rim protection, whether it was JuJuan Johnson or Hammons anchoring the middle. This year that role falls on Haas.
Haas’ lack of mobility would be an issue in the NBA where teams would put him in a high ball screen every time down the floor. At this level, Purdue can keep him near the basket with hybrid zone schemes designed to let his sheer size overwhelm opponents at the rim. It’s telling that Hammons — former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year — posted a block rate nearly twice as high as Haas’ last year. He’ll have to improve defensively to keep Purdue’s defense elite, but he’s capable of doing it.
Swanigan’s length (7’3 wingspan) also makes him a major asset down low. He’s comfortable scoring with his back to the basket but also has a better face-up game than many realize. Last year, Swanigan attempted 72 threes and made 29 percent of them. That might not sound terribly impressive, but consider that fellow freshman Jaylen Brown made 29 percent of 102 attempts as a wing and was still the third pick in the draft. If Swanigan can extend his range, he’ll have every opportunity to be college basketball’s Kevin Love — a tremendous rebounder with an inside-out offensive game to match.
To open things up inside for Haas and Swanigan, Purdue will need shooters on the perimeter. That’s where Dakota Mathias (38 percent from three), P.J. Thompson (41 percent), and Ryan Cline (39 percent) come in. If the big men can get the ball moving when double teams inevitably come crashing down in the paint, the shooters should have plenty of opportunities.
How the Boilermakers can go home early: A lack of creators off the dribble and front court depth
Pour one out for Chris Kramer and Lewis Jackson because point guard has been Purdue’s biggest problem area for a few years now, save for one glorious season from Jon Octeus as a grad transfer.
P.J. Thompson will get the first crack at the job after an impressive sophomore year that saw him place No. 3 in the country in offensive rating, per KenPom. The problem is that he’s only 5’10, isn’t a natural playmaker and struggles to defend bigger lead guards. Carsen Edwards -- the No. 88 recruit in the class of 2016 -- is waiting in the wings as the point guard of the future. He’s another score-first guard, but will he be able to contribute right away?
More than anything, Painter has to pray Haas and Swanigan stay healthy. There isn’t much depth behind them. Jacquil Taylor is the only true big on the bench, and he’s played just 102 combined minutes his first two years in school. Athletic 6’6 wing Basil Smotherman -- say it out loud, Basil Smotherman — returns from a redshirt season after contributing as a freshman and sophomore. He could be the key to Purdue unlocking small ball lineups.
The Boilermakers aren’t as deep as last season and they will miss the presence of Hammons, as any team would. They’re still good enough to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. Just don’t blame their fans if they seem extra anxious in March.