|Purdue coach Matt Painter on Ronnie Johnson: "I thought he did some good things." (AP)|
NEW YORK – Five years ago Thursday, Purdue's freshman class of Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore combined for 28 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a 26-point win over Bethune-Cookman to open the season.
On Thursday, the Boilermakers' freshmen went for 36 points, 23 rebounds and nine assists in a controversial 89-81 loss to Villanova in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.
It looked like Purdue was well on it way to an impressive comeback victory, overcoming a 10-point second-half deficit to lead by eight with just 1:14 left. The game turned when D.J. Byrd was called for a flagrant foul with 44 seconds left, giving Villanova two foul shots and the ball down by four. In overtime, the Wildcats had all the momentum and Purdue couldn't recover without Byrd.
However, despite the youth in Purdue's rotation, coach Matt Painter was quick to point out that this loss was not on the shoulders of the freshmen.
“We wish we could point this to our younger guys,” Painter said. “It's the guys who have played before that had the opportunities to seal the game for us, and they weren't able to do that.”
Purdue lost most of its production from last season, bidding farewell to Hummel, Lewis Jackson, Ryne Smith and suspended guard Kelsey Barlow. But Painter brought in four highly-touted freshmen in Ronnie Johnson, A.J. Hammons, Raphael Davis and Jay Simpson. Throw in redshirt freshman Donnie Hale, and the Boilermakers were undergoing a youth infusion.
As a result, most people around the country knew there would be some growing pains with Purdue. The Baby Boilers couldn't hold onto a second-half lead against Bucknell in the season-opener, and they couldn't close it out against Villanova on Thursday.
After three games, though, it's tough to be down about the potential of this group. Hale has been active inside, while Johnson has made an immediate impact as the starting point guard. Davis has done a little bit of everything; Hammons does a good job of getting position inside; and Simpson is productive in spurts.
“They've done a good job for us,” Painter said. “It's a tough blend, anytime you have freshmen, four or five of them. There's always three guys on the court at the same time, with zero experience. I like all their talent, they just have to grow up quick if we're going to win games.”
The last time Painter relied so heavily on freshmen was 2008, when Hummel, Johnson and Moore arrived on campus. All three were in the starting lineup on opening day, and helped lead Purdue to 107 wins over the next four years. The Boilermakers also made the NCAA tournament in Hummel's fifth year in West Lafayette.
Of course there are differences between the two groups. This year's class has five players, as compared to three back in 2008 (not counting Martin, who transferred to Notre Dame after one season). But the similarities are also there. Multiple newcomers are being thrown into the fire right off the bat, and none of the players are likely one-and-done players.
That might be the most important aspect: the quintet will be the building blocks for Painter for the next four years. Come 2015-16, Purdue could have one of the most experienced lineups in the country.
“They're not as mature as those guys,” Painter said when asked to compare the two groups. “They don't understand the game like those guys. These guys are more talented, and have more size. Those guys were talented guys, they worked on their game. These guys aren't as mature – and that's what we need to work on.”
It's not a surprise that Purdue is going through some early-season growing pains. There aren't too many upperclassmen to lean on, and the Boilermakers looked lost offensively when senior Byrd fouled out late in the second half. If Johnson (12 points, nine assists) and Hale (11 points, six rebounds) continue their solid play, and the other three freshmen develop as expected, this will be a completely different team by the time Big Ten play kicks into high gear.
It's all about maturity.
“When they do that, I think we've got a chance to be pretty good,” Painter said.
If the Baby Boilers stay together as long as expected, that could be an understatement.