PORTLAND, Oregon — At 3:51 p.m. Wednesday, after practice and a post-practice snack in Chipotle, the Purdue team bus pulled up on the north side of a Hyatt Regency not far from the Willamette River. Players and staff stepped out into a lobby with soft lighting and Steely Dan played over the speaker system. Elementary school boys playing foosball and cutlery rattling inside Bridgetown BBQ made up most of the noise in the room. A stark contrast to the atmosphere of the program’s final journey into a multi-team event, where you strolled past half-full blackjack tables and relentlessly chirping slot machines to get to a movie session.
Relatively quiet a day before the rowdy PK85 showcase was appropriate. Purdue will somehow reimagine itself on a national stage this week. But Purdue is also very much not where it was a year ago.
That group made as much noise at the Hall of Fame tip as the Mohegan Sun casino’s Wicked Wheel, establishing itself as a title contender and never really fading during the regular season. That team knew exactly who it was so early on. This group starts with two real freshman guards. That alone makes this a growth company by nature. The results were good – three wins, a top 20 offense, a top 25 ranking – but the identity confirmation process is far from over. A stacked event like the Phil Knight Legacy tournament could even be the real start. “It tests a lot,” said chief security officer David Jenkins. “We will really see where we stand. Even if we go 3-0 in this tournament, there will be a lot of things we need to work on anyway. There is always time for us to get better.”
The truth is out there, or at least bits of it dotted around this bracket. But it’s not really about knowing everything. Not in November, not with this roster structure. It’s about knowing more, and pitting the idealized version of A Matt Painter Team against whatever this team is right now, and measuring the distance between them.
Reality tells us that Painter’s top teams have recently been defined by fringe absurd attacks: 30 wins and No. 2 nationally in adjusted returns in 2017-18; 26 wins and No. 4 in 2018-19; 29 wins and number 2 again a year ago. The defense is fair enough, and usually a singular talent leads the way. Well, until now, Zach Edey has been the load-bearing structure. So far the offense is fine, if not the spitting image of vintage Purdue. So far the defense is fair enough or maybe better, especially on the 3-point line and on the perimeter. But a new context awaits.
First comes West Virginia, a top 40 team from KenPom.com, on Thanksgiving. A semi-final against Gonzaga may follow, in the top three of KenPom. A level of competition that ensures everyone takes stock, for better or for worse. “I don’t think we know who we are,” Painter said Wednesday, sitting outside a conference room where Nike representatives presented his players with another round of swag. “I think we know where to go with the ball, with Zach Edey. We know we have to arrest him, but we also know that’s not the only gun we have. So those other guns could come out if we playing against him, or doing other things to try and use other people’s skills, it’s just trying to find that balance.”
📍: Portland pic.twitter.com/5quXKBwotu
— Purdue Men’s Basketball (@BoilerBall) November 23, 2022
It also indicates that Purdue still has things to figure out at the end of November. This event was bound to become a turning point once Painter decided to fast-track a backcourt of Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith and their combined zero-minute college basketball experience, even though it may be less of a surprise than it seems for a program as inclined to a putting on a freshman’s shirt like it is to give him tough minutes.
Painter felt that these two guards in particular were equipped with processors that would smooth out the learning curve. Smith’s father played college basketball. His mother was Miss Basketball at Arkansas. Both are high school coaches. Loyer, meanwhile, had an NBA scout for a father, a former Purdue volleyball assistant coach for a mother, and an older brother, Foster, who is a former Michigan Mr. Basketball is and a Division I guard, first at Michigan State and now at Davidson. “People say those things don’t matter,” Painter said. “Yes they do. That competitive juice doesn’t matter? It matters, and it will come out.” The Boilermakers coach also happens to believe that both were hilariously underrated in recruiting rankings (Loyer was No. 94 in the 247Sports Composite, 102 places above Smith), which of course lowered the bar, at least from the outside looking in. But Loyer approached competition fearlessly on the EYBL circuit. Smith approached everything fearless. They should earn minutes at Purdue, but there was no internal bias against the possibility of them doing so.
Both also embraced that belief. “I always imagined it was possible,” Smith said. “Coach Paint and all the other coaches said it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re good enough to play, you play. That was a huge confidence boost.”
“Wherever you go, it’s not going to be easy,” Loyer said. “It just goes in with a positive mindset. You won’t have a good game every night, you won’t be able to practice well every day. It’s fighting through those tough days and staying positive with yourself.
Mastering the epic script was a natural hurdle. But the combination of the first-year guards’ willingness to listen and the regularity of their deployment was right. “We pay attention to competitive practice, we pay attention to how well you do in practice, what pieces fit together, and they were the most consistent,” Painter said. “They both deserved it. They are both very sure of themselves, but they have been very consistent.”
They are the avatars for Purdue in 2022-23, walking embodiments of the questions everyone is asking. But for three games, they also added a caffeine boost, filling one of the Boilermakers’ biggest blanks: guard play. Loyer and Smith combined average 21 points and nearly five assists per game, with Painter confident that Loyer’s shots (35.5 percent overall) will come around and Smith’s assist numbers (2.7 per game) will rise as Loyer and others take more shots.
It is also helpful for them to have a clear understanding of how to make their life easier on the floor.
“We’ve got an All-American under the rim,” Loyer said.
By all accounts, Edey is one of the largest known quantities anywhere. An extra 10 minutes on average per game hasn’t affected his productivity; he averaged 30.3 points and 16 rebounds per 40 minutes in a timeshare last season and stands at 27.9 points and 18.4 rebounds per 40 with sole owner of the primary major role. When the most used player on the roster makes 28.4 percent of shots while on the ground, and hits 65 percent of those attempts, the floor for teamwide offensive efficiency is pretty high.
But… we have questions.
Loyer takes 30.2 percent of shots while on the ground and has a massive 46.8 percent effective field goal percentage. What evidence is there that most freshman guards become more efficient as the level of competition increases? Smith is a less ambitious shooter – only six tries per game so far. He’s hit 45.5 percent of his looks from long range, but that’s a bit deceiving, with a total of 11 tries and a 3-of-4 result at the final timeout. It’s not certain that rates would be stable if he shot more, and maybe he’s not wired to be that guy anyway. In the meantime? As of Wednesday, Purdue’s 7.7 made 3-pointers a game rank 173rd nationally, and its long-range shooting percentage of 28.8 ranks 215th.
Again, the confidence that it will happen — “It’s not going to rain forever, man,” Jenkins said — but a waiting game until it happens.
“What gets really hampered early in the year is shot selection,” Painter said. “The decision-making is not so good because the roles are not yet fully defined. Roles are now defined. And it normally takes losses to get those defined as they need to be. We try to work through that.”
The idea that this could be another high-end Purdue strike team is lame. Which of course. It’s been three games. But the Boilermakers take care of the ball and score inside the arc and apply a reasonable amount of pressure to get to the free throw line… and absolutely nothing can change that, not even to keep the level. Then they must quickly find the threats on the perimeter or Edey will be surrounded by three or four sets of arms every time he touches the ball.
Essentially, there is less data than usual. It could be okay. It couldn’t be. The only guarantee is four nights in Portland to reveal the depth of the difference. “You learn a lot about your team,” Painter said. “There are teams that play well in these things and it is the highlight of the season. There are teams that are struggling and it’s a wake-up call, and then it really transitions into a better season. And sometimes it doesn’t matter, right? It just is what it is.”
Purdue finds who it is good enough after three games. We’ll see how it feels after three more.
(Top photo of Fletcher Loyer, left, and Zach Edey: Michael Hickey/Getty Images)