WEST LAFAYETTE – For the first time since March 2020, fans are filing into Mackey Arena prior to a game that actually counts. A Purdue exhibition game against Division II University of Indianapolis on Thursday was played in front of a noisy, near-capacity crowd, demonstrating just how starved the Boilermaker faithful are for the return of college basketball. An even bigger crowd is slated to be on hand tonight, when Purdue opens its 124th season.
The No. 7 Boilermakers enter the season with sky-high expectations, returning all five starters and eight rotation players from a team that went 18-11 and earned No. 4 seeds in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments a year ago. Those returners include preseason All-Americans Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams, as well as 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the breakout star of the FIBA U19 World Cup this summer.
To that cornucopia of talent the Boilermakers have added the 2021 Indiana Mr Basketball, Caleb Furst, a Blackhawk graduate. With the addition of Furst, Purdue coach Matt Painter has nine players he feels can contribute significantly this season. With that level of depth and experience, it's no surprise the Boilers have been tabbed as co-favorites in the Big Ten and are a popular pick to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1980.
As the season has gotten closer, however, there have been some warnings signs pointing to a somewhat bumpy start to the campaign. First, the Boilers lost a "secret" scrimmage against Providence, 89-88. Then, they trailed 11-2 in the early going against Indianapolis and didn't take the lead for good until past the midway point of the first half. Painter has been especially concerned about his team's defensive attitude in those games, admitting "We're not very good" on that end of the floor and adding some more pointed comments following the disappointing 86-64 victory over the Greyhounds.
"More than anything, it's just playing with a purpose," Painter said of what his team lacked in the victory. "You have to go in the game understanding your assignment and concentrating and doing your job. We just don't have enough people defensively that are doing that from a consistent standpoint. ... Nobody left here saying 'Purdue played harder than Indianapolis.' That's embarrassing to me as a coach. They played harder than we did and (Indianapolis coach Paul Corsaro) did a better job coaching his team.
"It's the maturation of your team, especially when they're getting a lot of attention like they're good and they're not that good. Our team is not that good."
That sounds like a coach trying to disabuse his players of the notion that they will be able to win this season simply because they won last season. It's a good bet Painter spent the final days leading up to the official season-opener tonight pushing every player on his team to give more effort. That type of message could resonate on this team because playing time and rotation spots remain so unsettled. Painter admitted after the game against Indianapolis he has no idea how he will divvy up minutes in the early part of the season, meaning everyone will have a chance to impress.
That includes Furst, whom Painter has singled out for praise leading up to the season. The Fort Wayne native, fresh off leading Blackhawk to a Class 2A state championship, will start tonight in his collegiate debut. After spending his high school career as a center, he'll play power forward opposite Edey and Williams early in his Boilermakers tenure. The position switch will involve more time on the perimeter, where he will spot up for jumpers on offense and chase smaller players around on defense. There will likely be some growing pains, but Furst seems to have the shooting ability and quick feet necessary to handle the rigors of playing the 4.
Tonight's opponent, Bellarmine, is in its second year as a Division I program, coming off a debut season in which it went 14-8 and 10-3 in Atlantic Sun play. It isn't eligible for the NCAA Tournament because of rules prohibiting participation in the tournament for the first four years after a team makes the jump to Division I. That means the Knights could treat tonight's contest like something of an early-season Super Bowl. Pulling a shocker against a top 10 team wouldn't match an NCAA Tournament appearance in terms of exposure for the program, but it would be a nice consolation prize. The Knights lost high-scoring guard Pedro Bradshaw to the G League, but return double-digit scorers Dylan Penn, CJ Fleming and Ethan Claycomb, as well as 6-foot-10 Sam Devault. Bellarmine was 27th in the country in 3-point shooting percentage last season at 37.5% and Purdue has struggled to defend long-range shooting in its preseason matchups. If the Boilers have trouble in that area again tonight, the Knights could hang around longer than Purdue would like.
A new season is upon us. Purdue is hoping it ends in April. Here we go.
Note: About an hour before tipoff tonight, the Boilermakers announced freshman Trey Kaufman-Renn, the 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball runner-up, will redshirt this season and make his Boilers debut in 2022-23. Carmel graduate Brian Waddell will also redshirt, as expected. Painter has liberally redshirted players in recent years, sitting Sasha Stefanovic in 2017-18 and Brandon Newman and Mason Gillis in 2019-20.