CHICAGO – Purdue's 57-55 loss to Nebraska in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday at the United Center didn't erase the strides the Boilermakers (15-17) made at the end of the season.
But it did expose some old wounds Purdue has been dealing with throughout the season.
The Boilermakers finished the season with three wins in their last five games, scoring an upset win over then-No. 17 Wisconsin and pushing No. 6 Michigan to the limit in a loss.
But against Nebraska (15-17), Purdue fell into the bad habits that have left this team hoping for an NIT, College Basketball Invitational or a CollegeInsider.com tournament bid.
"I thought that the improvements we made here in the past two, three weeks, I thought that should have been where we were in late December, early January. It just took us a while to figure it out," coach Matt Painter said after Thursday's loss. "Then when things don't go our way … the Wisconsin win was a great win, obviously, but we were down 13, 14 points in the game and came back and won. So you see it in games like (Thursday) right here where we get down, we really struggle to handle adversity. We have done a better job with it, but the missed free throws, the missed opportunities, the breakdowns, they didn't actually answer the question about the start of the second half. It's just an immature approach to coming out in the second half. And maybe some shots don't fall for you, but you still do your defensive assignment, you don't get back boarded out of the corner, you stay tight on a screen. You do what you're supposed to do. They make tough shots, you shake their hand. We had some mental breakdowns. We weren't ready to play.
"I wish I could blame it on our young guys, but we just didn't have a group that could stay in it. It was great to see how they improved at the end of the year, but this right here we had too many situations, opportunities where it seemed like we were backing down from where we played most of the year, especially against good competition."
While the Boilermakers what to see if they can play at least one more game before this season is over, Painter made it clear what he wants to see from his players moving forward.
"We need to recruit and try to get some things fixed," Painter said. "We just have to be more into it in terms of having 12-month guys. … We got to get a more skilled guy, in my opinion. The year before we weren't as talented as we were before, but we took care of the basketball and we always gave ourself a chance.
"And this year we didn't do that at times. And then you got to be able to make free throws, just do simple fundamental things. So when you have guys that are 12-month guys that put in a lot of time, that area is going to improve. You just got to do a better job there. I got to do a better job there."
As Painter searches for more "12-month guys," the younger players are optimistic about their future at Purdue. The Boilermakers started three freshmen – A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson and Fort Wayne native Rapheal Davis – against Nebraska.
"I think toward the end of the season we just learned how to play the game," Davis said, "what it takes to play real basketball and not an AAU style. We came together I think. We look forward toward next year. We should have a pretty good season.
"We may have another (game) this year, and we just need to finish it out, keep playing hard and always play hard."