LAST SEASON – Matt Painter seemed to be in a difficult spot entering last season. He enjoyed great early success in West Lafayette on the backs of the so-called “Baby Boilers” class, with guys like Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore making the Boilers a Big Ten factor for most of their Purdue careers. Since that group left town, however, Purdue had been a disappointment. Painter had two straight losing seasons overall and combined that with roster instability. There was a school of thought that perhaps he was teetering on the edge of losing his job and that one more poor, non- NCAA Tournament season might actually push him over.

The non conference performance didn’t do much to assuage fears. Purdue lost 5 non conference games, including ones to North Florida and Gardner Webb. At that point, it was sensible to wonder if we might be witnessing the begining of the end for him. A 3-3 start in conference play was decent but hardly the stuff to convince one all was well…and then it changed. Purdue won 8 of its next 9 games. Now, the schedule was kind…they had a lot of home games…the only impressive road win came at IU. Still, 8 of 9 is 8 of 9 in the Big Ten. The Boilers ended up 12-6 in a tie for third and earned an NCAA bid. They lost their Tournament opener by a point to Cincy in OT but even that couldn’t put a damper on what they had accomplished. Purdue was relevant once again. They were “back” to an extent. They lost outstanding grad transfer point guard Jon Octeus and that’s a hole they’re still trying to fill, but bringing back senior big man AJ Hammons is huge and ensures that the Boilers have lots of reason for optimism heading into next season.

RETURNING PLAYERS

AJ Hammons is a 7 foot senior center whose return was the biggest possible recruiting get Painter could have had, and his presence gives the Boilers a potential NBA player and significant two way impact player. Hammons has battled inconsistency in terms of production and motivation but seemed to finally find the right level of both as a junior and it resulted in his best season for Purdue, as he averaged 11.9ppg, 6.6 rpg and just about 3 blocks per game. He did all of that in only 24 mpg, helped by the fact that Purdue has a legitimate backup option at center, so Hammons can play when he’s rested and fresh at all times. He’ll be a popular preseason choice for first team All Big Ten honors, as he can take a game over at both ends when he’s at his best.

Raphael Davis is a 6’5″ senior wing who has also grown into his game alongside classmate Hammons. Davis had a breakthrough season, giving Purdue 10.7ppg as an active and versatile player. He’s able to draw contact and get himself to the line with frequency and he’s a good passer with good court vision playing off the ball. He’s also one of the Big Ten’s best perimeter defenders, with his size and strength allowing him to guard a wide variety of players. I’d put him behind only Denzel Valentine in terms of guards in the league who can make a complete and total impact on the game in every area.

Vince Edwards is a 6’7″ sophomore forward who got off to a great start scoring the ball but settled into more of a support role as the usual inconsistencies which tend to befall young players hit him in conference play. He still had a nice first season, scoring 8.8 ppg and grabbing 4.8 rpg as a 3/4 guy. Edwards could use some improved consistency with his jumper but even as-is he’s a guy who can score around the rim, rebound well and find others (90 assists to just 50 TOs on the season, an outstanding number for a guy playing his role). He’s got a bright future and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a step forward next season.

Kendall Stephens is a 6’6′ junior guard who saw his role, his minutes and his production all tick up slightly in his second season compared to his freshman year. Stephens is first and foremost a jump shooting threat…he shot 38% from deep and about 75% of his overall attempts came from outside the arc, so that’s where he’s been oriented as an offensive player. The thing is, despite good production (he averaged 8.7ppg), Stephens hasn’t been quite as consistent overall and especially on the defensive end as Painter would want. Purdue needs a bit more from him as a junior…they need him to answer the bell consisently and get a little grittier. If he can do that, he can take a step forward as a player because his shot making ability is unquestionable.

Isaac Haas is a massive 7’2″ 300lbs sophomore center who is part of what might be the best tag team at center in the entire country, combining with Hammons to make sure Purdue has a serious presence inside on the court at all times. I really like Haas’ game…one thing he doesn’t struggle with at all which tends to be an issue for many young big men is that he knows how to play hard and with energy at all times. He’s a strong rebounder and a good finisher around the rim who will likely get even better as he continues to adjust to the speed of the game at this level. I’d expect his minutes won’t change much this year, because Purdue really can’t play he and Hammons together (the team just becomes too slow and capable of being exploited defensively), so figure on about 15 minutes per game from him. I like his future a great deal, though. When Hammons is gone, he’ll have two years left as the main man inside and that’s when I think we’ll see him really take off. For now, he’s probably among the best second team centers in America.

Dakota Mathias is a 6’4″ sophomore guard who was very much an under the radar recruit last season but ended up making an impact due to his shooting and grittiness on the wing for the Boilers. He only hit 32% of his threes as a freshman but looks to be a guy capable of faring better than that going forward. The biggest thing he provides for Painter is another wing option, someone he can use to hold guys like Stephens accountable at both ends of the court. I’d expect Mathias to be a rotation guy again this season.

Basil Smotherman is a 6’6″ junior forward who has some athleticism and some versatility to his game. He might be a guy capable of developing into somethng along the lines of what Raphael Davis has become, though the light hasn’t come on completely just yet for him. For now, his role will likely continue to be as an energy guy off the bench at either the 3 or the 4.

PJ Thompson is a 5’10” sophomore point guard who, for the moment, would appear to be the top option at that position for the Boilers. It seems unlikely that will remain the case as Painter is actively pursuing some grad transfers but Thompson will likely be in the Purdue rotation either way. He’s small and didn’t shoot particularly well but he has some quickness and decent passing instincts. He’s likely better suited to be a backup at this stage, however.

Jacquil Taylor is a 6’9″ redshirt freshman power forward. Taylor sat out last season with stress fracture issues but before that happened, he impressed people around the program with his ability to battle with bigger players and also step away from the rim and hit midrange jumpers. If he can stay healthy he can help this team as one thing they otherwise lack is a more conventionally sized power forward. I wouldn’t expect Taylor to start ahead of a guy like Edwards but I can see him earning a steady role in the Boiler rotation as a bigger option at that position, one who won’t hamstring the offense either as he can play near or away from the basket.