Mutka: Matt Painter, Purdue seeking a coming of age
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent May 18, 2014 8:12PM
Purdue head coach Matt Painter talks with his players during a break in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
Updated: June 23, 2014 1:23PM
MERRILLVILLE — Getting old — that’s Coach Matt Painter’s objective. Not him, silly. Just his Purdue basketball team.
In the present Division I climate, that’s difficult. Long-term planning can be a waste of time when transfers or the NBA can sabotage your efforts at the drop of a diploma.
Painter is trying to deal with it, but after six straight seasons of at least 22 victories he’s in a crisis mode. Upperclassmen have become an endangered species at Mackey Arena.
“When we played a lot of juniors and seniors we were pretty good,” Painter said during a recent appearance in Northwest Indiana with the Purdue Caravan.
Over the last two years Purdue has limped to a 31-35 record. The Big Ten cellar-dwellers carry a seven-game losing streak into next season.
“We need to get older,” Painter said.
Figuring it out can give a coach a migraine. In the past, players usually left because of lack of playing time. They weren’t missed. That’s no longer the case.
“It’s a commitment issue,” Painter said. “Now you’re seeing more guys leave who have been productive but want a different style or to get closer to home.”
He’s not alone. According to ESPN, more than 400 players have transferred in the offseason.
Indiana lost Jeremy Hollowell to Georgia State and Austin Etherington to Butler, which also picked up Tyler Lewis from North Carolina State but suffered five transfers after a 4-14 finish in the Big East.
Getting greedy temporarily has priced the Bulldogs out of the market since leaving the Horizon League. Switching conferences twice in as many years has created an identity crisis.
“It’s a little bit of a revolving door,” Painter said of the transfer epidemic. “Coaches have to do their homework and try to find guys who fit the program.”
Purdue lost Ron Johnson, who averaged 10.8 points and 3.7 assists, leaving the program with Bryson Scott as the only returning point guard.
In September, Donnie Hale departed for Bellarmine to be closer to his New Albany home and 3-year-old child. The 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore had started eight games. Last year, the Boilers also took another hit up front when 6-8 Sandy Marcius bolted for DePaul.
“When you commit to a guy who plays a lot it hurts,” Painter said. “You want that experience. We’ve stayed young for three years. We need to get old.”
Painter’s next team will be built around five returning scholarship players and five incoming recruits. Fortunately, Gary native A.J. Hammons spurned the NBA for another year. It was a sensible decision, since he was projected as no better than a late second-round pick.
The 7-1 sophomore averaged 12.4 points. He also was the Big Ten runner-up in rebounding to Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, who exited after just one year.
“He’s improving, but has got to get his motor going,” Painter said of Hammons, who wants more consistency from Hammons on the boards. “I think he has the ability to average 10 rebounds a game. Then he’s ready for the NBA.”
Hammons should benefit from the skill-set of such incoming recruits as P.J. Thompson, who averaged 24 points per game. Signing the Brebeuf point guard was a major coup, according to Painter.
“He understands the game,” he said. “He grew up in a basketball family. He’s just a winner who fits our needs in decision-making.”
Shooting guard Dakota Mathias also should help. He’s one of five solid recruits, a list which includes 7-2 Isaac Haas, a four-star signee.
“Isaac’s a good athlete with a huge upside,” Painter said.
The Purdue coach also is impressed with 6-9 power forward Jacquil Taylor, who averaged 14.1 points and 10.8 rebounds in his senior year. The 6-9 power forward reminds him of Gary McQuay, a lean and lanky standout from West Side who played for Purdue in the 1990s.
Decision-making flawed Purdue’s basketball personality. The Boilermakers ranked 11th in Big Ten free-throw percentage (68.4). Only Indiana was worse then them in turnovers.
“We had some positives, but didn’t reward ourselves at the free-throw line in bonus situations,” he said. “That really hurt us, especially late in games. We beat ourselves in a handful of games because we didn’t take care of the ball and poor free-throw shooting.
“I think we’ve shored that up. We’re going to be more skilled in shooting and hopefully making better decisions and we’ve filled a need in size.”
Getting old enough to contend may take another year, but the future looks brighter for a turnaround. If Painter can keep his recruits from bailing out prematurely, “Getting To Know You” could be his theme song for a Mackey Arena revival.