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Mutka: Painter seeks positive strokes for Purdue hoops

Purdue Head Basketball Coach Matt Painter left talks with Jack Wallace Valparaiso Ind. center Dave Milligan Valparaiso Ind. during Purdue

Purdue Head Basketball Coach Matt Painter, left, talks with Jack Wallace of Valparaiso, Ind., center, and Dave Milligan of Valparaiso, Ind., during the Purdue Coaches Caravan at the Radisson Hotel Thursday, May 23, 2013, in Merrillville, Ind. | Scott M. Bort~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 28, 2013 6:45AM



What in the name of Boilermaker Pete is going on with Purdue’s basketball program?

Coach Matt Painter doesn’t consider himself a strict disciplinarian, but three transfers within a week recently suggest otherwise.

Anthony Johnson departed after appearing in 68 games on behalf of the Boilermakers. Jacob Lawson, who made 58 appearances, also skipped.

Neither one would have toiled significant minutes next season, but the Boilermakers will miss the enthusiasm of 6-9 Sandi Marcius, who provided an anemic offense with a late-season transfusion of energy.

“People make a big deal out of transfers,” said Painter during an appearance in Merrillville last week, “but other teams in our league had guys leave.”

National runner-up Michigan lost Evan Smotrycz (Maryland), Carlton Brundidge (Detroit) and Colton Christian (Florida International).

Ohio State was reduced to nine scholarship players when J.D. Weatherspoon and Jordan Sibert bailed out.

The national epidemic of more than 400 premature exits in one year also affected Indiana, which waved bye-bye to Remy Abell (Xavier) and oft-injured Maurice Creek, who never realized his potential because of major leg injuries in the last four years.

The Hoosiers countered by signing Eric Gordon’s baby brother, Evan, who graduated from Arizona State, where he averaged 10.1 points. Purdue also picked up Errick Peck, who averaged 9.7 points and 4.8 rebounds at Cornell and is exercising his graduate school option for immediate eligibility.

The 6-5 Peck, who prepped at Indianapolis Cathedral, provides Purdue with potential leadership, something the Boilermakers lacked last year in a 16-18 season.

“D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson were the only ones we had on a consistent basis,” Painter said. “Peck gives us a lot of minutes even though it wasn’t in our system. I think he’ll create some mismatches in our league.”

An in-betweener, he can be used as a big guard or an undersized forward. It would take a quantum leap for a newcomer to wrest leadership from Terone Johnson, who earned the team’s MVP award with a 13.5 scoring average.

Johnson and Travis Carroll are Purdue’s only returning seniors. Carroll logged just token minutes, but Peck will need time to become orientated.

“They’ve been in our program for four years,” Painter points out. “Errick’s got to figure out what were asking him to do in our system on a daily basis.”

Purdue’s going to need continued improvement from 7-footer A.J. Hammons to polish its tarnished image. The 280-pounder, who led Big Ten freshmen in rebounds, raised eyebrows with a monster 30-point game in one of two losses to IU, but lacked consistency.

“He’s got a chance to be special, but I told A.J. he was a flip of the coin: heads he played hard, tails he didn’t,” Painter said. “It was a little discouraging, but gave us a starting point.”

Hammons lists Gary as his hometown, but played for Carmel through his sophomore season, then skipped to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy. They were 73-4 in his last two years and ranked No. 1 nationally.

“Very few guys in college have his tools,” Painter said. “He needs to be a 12-month guy, though. It’s hard for big guys to get in shape, even harder to stay in shape.”

Oak Hill’s schedule helped him fine-tune his body with a 44-0 record in his senior season, then playing in China. His minutes piled up, but Hammons needs to refine his mental approach by making better passing decisions out of the post and improving his defensive footwork.

“He rebounds above the rim and is a good shot blocker,” Painter said.

If the personable coach seems demanding it’s for a good reason.

“I’m really hard on talented guys,” said Painter, who provides NBA pro JaJuan Johnson as a positive responder to tough love. “I try to be fair and spell it out for guys. If they give me the effort I’ll be encouraging.”

What he’s searching for is consistency, something which was missing in losses to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan. That and some major breakdowns in Big Ten hostilities cost the Boilermakers an NCAA bid.

“We were 8-and-10 in the conference,” Painter said. “Two others were 8-and-10, made the tournament and won a game.”

He was referring to Illinois and Minnesota, both 20-game winners.

Because of expansion, Purdue and Indiana are playing only once next season, which doesn’t set well with Painter. He remembers how it used to be when he called venerable Gene Keady coach.

“We played everybody twice,” he said. “We’re so far away from having a true champion now.”

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten the schedule was adjusted to four singles to maintain an 18-game schedule. With Maryland and Rutgers coming in, the number of singles will increase to eight, which makes it more difficult to protect rivalries.

Preserving them should be a priority in the future 14-team mega-conference.

How the schedule unfolds will be a big factor in deciding the regular-season champion. Consider what a huge advantage it would have been last year for a contender to play Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern twice. Those three tailenders had a combined record of 11-43.



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