The Journal Gazette
Friday, March 20, 2020 1:00 am

Season wrap-up

Purdue can only hope for better

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Heading into this season, Purdue had made the NCAA Tournament five straight seasons, the longest streak since the Baby Boilers era of a decade ago.

That streak came to an end this year as the NCAA Tournament was canceled in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Purdue's chances of earning a bid to the tournament were slim when the Big Ten Tournament was canceled March 12, with the Boilers likely needing to at least reach the finals of the conference showcase in order to earn a place in March Madness.

The end of the season left Purdue with a 16-15 record, the Boilermakers' fewest wins since they had 15 in 2013-14. It also meant the end of the careers of seniors Evan Boudreaux (a Dartmouth transfer), Jahaad Proctor (a High Point transfer) and fan favorite Tommy Luce, a former walk-on who functioned as a human victory cigar for coach Matt Painter.

“We are disappointed we aren't able to continue our season, but this is much bigger than basketball,” Painter wrote on Twitter after the NCAA and Big Ten Tournaments were ended. “This is a worldwide issue and we understand that difficult decisions needed to be made.

“Thank you (Luce, Boudreaux and Proctor) for all you've done in your Purdue careers. You are a big part of our family and you will always be a Boilermaker. No one can take this family & memories away from you.”

The three seniors immediately expressed their regret on social media.

“It's been a surreal experience playing for the black and gold these past two years,” Boudreaux tweeted. “Gonna miss playing with my brothers. Always a boiler.”

This might eventually be remembered as a transitional team, bridging the gap between the group led by Carsen Edwards and the one that will likely come next year led by defensive stalwarts Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern, who both have one season of eligibility remaining. 

Purdue didn't extend its NCAA Tournament streak and it finished with a disappointing record, but there will still be big expectations with nearly everyone back next season. Here are three questions facing the Boilermakers as the offseason begins.

Another year together

Purdue was one of the more maddening teams in the country this season, winning some games against good teams by wide margins – the Boilermakers had three wins over ranked opponents by at least 29 points – but also losing some eminently winnable games that kept them from climbing the Big Ten standings.

They suffered through a four-game losing streak late in the season in which they were outhustled more than once.

That's rare from a Matt Painter-coached team and Painter mused late in the season that part of the problem was that players' roles weren't well-enough defined to get them to play at maximum effort at all times. Another offseason with much the same group should help define those roles, especially if Eastern and Haarms really step up as leaders this summer.

Can someone get to the foul line?

Purdue's offense wasn't particularly efficient this season, ranking 281st out of 353 Division I teams in field goal percentage. That leads to a lot of nights when shots aren't falling.

On those nights, getting easy points at the free throw line is key. The Boilermakers didn't do that this season, coming in 315th in free throw attempts and 320th in made free throws.

That has to change, but Proctor was one of the few Boilermakers who could create his own offense off the dribble.

Eric Hunter Jr. came into his own as a slasher near the end of the season and Trevion Williams gets to the line a lot (5.8 per 40 minutes), though he makes only 47.9%, but the Boilers will need young guards Brandon Newman and Jaden Ivey to attack the basket when the offense isn't flowing.

Will Wheeler figure it out?

Aaron Wheeler will be a redshirt junior next season. As a redshirt freshman in 2018-19, he was a key bench piece in Purdue's run to the Elite Eight, hitting some huge 3-pointers and playing suffocating defense. 

For whatever reason, Wheeler wasn't the same player this season, hitting just 21.6% of his 3-pointers, down from 36.5% the year prior.

He fell out of the lineup after starting the first seven games and averaged less than 10 minutes in Purdue's last four games.

It seemed as though he lost a little bit of confidence as shot after shot rimmed out for him, but that also suggests he is capable of rebuilding that self-assurance with a big summer in the gym.

He should be one of the team's leaders next season and Purdue will need his scoring punch.

Top moments

The Boilermakers solve Virginia: In a rematch of the 2019 Elite Eight matchup that Virginia won in overtime, denying Purdue its first trip to the Final Four since 1980, the Boilermakers exacted some revenge on Dec. 4. The undefeated and No. 5 Cavaliers were run out of Mackey Arena as Purdue rained 13 3-pointers on Virginia's supposedly impenetrable defense. Sasha Stefanovic drained six of those on 10 attempts and Purdue won 69-40.

Stefanovic plays hero against Minnesota: Purdue hadn't won a game against a major-conference opponent in three weeks when the Golden Gophers came to Mackey on Jan. 2. The Boilers trailed late, but Stefanovic tied the game with a 3 with 15 seconds remaining on a terrific kick-out pass from Trevion Williams and then put Purdue in front in double overtime with another 3-pointer off a down-screen. The Crown Point native had five 3s in the game and Purdue won 83-78.

Trevion Williams explodes: The Purdue center led the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and had his best performance of the season at Michigan on Jan. 9. The Wolverines insisted on guarding him one-on-one and Williams took advantage, touching the ball on nearly every possession and scoring with a wide variety of post moves and fadeaway jumpers. He finished with 36 points and 20 rebounds, the first player in Division I to have 35 points, 20 rebounds and no turnovers in a game since 2011.

Purdue gives Michigan State a “beating”: Michigan State was ranked No. 8 in the country when the Spartans came to West Lafayette on Jan. 12. Purdue, just 9-7 coming into the game, proceeded to give Michigan State what coach Tom Izzo called “the worst beating” of his coaching career. The Boilers held the Spartans' offensive machine to 35.3% shooting and 2 of 16 from 3-point range, winning 71-42.

Stefanovic saves the day again: Purdue was on the verge of dropping a game against a Northwestern team that came into the Feb. 1 matchup 6-14. The Boilers trailed 58-50 with 4:34 left and a loss would've dropped them to 11-11, but they finished the game on an 11-0 run, capped when Stefanovic hit a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining to send Purdue to a 61-58 win.

Boilers have historic day against Iowa: Purdue started its game against No. 17 Iowa on Feb. 5 with a flurry of 3-pointers and the long-range shots never stopped falling. The Boilers made 19 shots from beyond the arc – one short of the Big Ten record – in 34 attempts and destroyed the Hawkeyes, 104-68. It was the largest win in program history against a ranked opponent. Stefanovic made five 3s and Evan Boudreaux added four.

Visitors spoil Indiana's party: Everything set up for Indiana to snap its five-game losing streak against Purdue on Feb. 8. The Hoosiers were at home, they had a superior record and coach Bob Knight made his first appearance at Assembly Hall in close to two decades. Instead, Purdue out-toughed the hated Hoosiers and won 74-62 behind three 3-pointers from Aaron Wheeler in his best game of the season.

– Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

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