Purdue coach Matt Painter understands how the lessons from a surprisingly short NCAA Tournament appearance can impact a team.
He watched Virginia use the motivation to fuel its 2019 national championship run, and five years ago Painter’s own team rebounded from a first-round exit to win the Big Ten regular-season title.
Now, Painter believes the seventh-ranked Boilermakers can do it again — 7 1/2 months after falling to North Texas in the first round.
“What we really talked about was learning from that and being better, even in a better position in next year’s NCAA Tournament, hopefully,” Painter said. “We’ve really tried to magnify some of the things we struggled with in that game, and hopefully that can make us a better team and a better program.”
Purdue doesn’t have many glaring holes after finishing fourth in the Big Ten’s COVID-19 shortened season..
All-conference forward Trevion Williams returns for his fourth year after averaging 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds. He is joined by experienced guards Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter Jr. and Isaiah Thompson.
The Boilermakers also have an impressive sophomore class featuring play-making guard Jaden Ivey, 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and forward Mason Gillis, with more help from a pair of tall freshmen forwards — reigning IndyStar Mr. Basketball Award winner Caleb Furst and runner-up Trey Kaufman-Renn.
It’s a daunting lineup filled with size, versatility, 3-point shooters and potentially difficult mismatches — virtually anything a coach would want. Naturally, they don’t lack confidence, either.
“It’s a great feeling to have these expectations put on you. I think we’ve earned that right,” Stefanovic said. “We have a lot of talent and a lot of great players on our team that can help us win a lot of games. With that being said, we obviously haven’t won a game yet.”
Painter knows that unless they fix the flaws North Texas exposed in March, the final chapter may not change much, either. But after watching all the tape and spending an offseason fine-tuning their skills, the Boilermakers believe things will be different next spring.
”You have to earn everything you’re given,” Stefanovic said. “We’re really excited to have that opportunity to potentially win a Big Ten title and we’re going to do everything we can to try to get to that level.”
Painter has relied on a double dose of going big in recent years and this season will be no different with the 6-10, 255-pound Williams and the lanky, 295-pound Edey manning the post.
What’s unclear is how much they’ll play together. As much of a mismatch the twin towers pose for opponents, it can be equally problematic for the Boilermakers.
“You get two of the biggest guys on the court, they’re anchored by the rim, a turnover happens, now you’ve got to sprint to the other end,” Painter said. “They’re faster and running 80 feet, you’re running 90 feet, I think we can all figure out how that ends. You can’t have a lot of that.”
Though the Boilermakers return each of their top eight scorers from last season, Painter has had to revamp his coaching staff.
Associate head coach Micah Shrewsberry’s second stint on Painter’s staff ended after two seasons when Penn State hired him.
Shrewsberry was in charge of the Boilermakers offense. Painter also lost his “defensive coordinator,” Steve Lutz, who left for the top job at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
The Boilermakers filled the two openings by adding former Ohio State assistant Terry Johnson and former Creighton assistant Paul Lusk.
Purdue hosts second-year Division I school Bellarmine in the opener on Nov. 9 then faces a battery of early-season tests.
It plays No. 19 North Carolina and either No. 18 Tennessee or No. 4 Villanova on consecutive nights in Connecticut before Thanksgiving. The comes games against No. 20 Florida State, Iowa, Rutgers, North Carolina State and Butler before Christmas.
The Big Ten champ could be determined in a flurry of contests with January road trips to No. 6 Michigan and No. 12 Illinois followed by consecutive home games against those same programs in early February.
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