WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- There's nothing subtle about a Purdue basketball practice. The players wear shorts with the words "PLAY HARD" stitched across the rear. A clock hanging above the tunnel that leads off the court of Mackey Arena sits above a sign that reads, "Time to Play Hard." I watched Purdue go through a grueling for three hours Monday -- much longer than most teams practice this time of year. The workout was a blur of collisions, bumps and elbows.
As if basketball weren't hard enough, Boilermakers coach
This is what you might call the Purdue Way, an ethos that became firmly established under former coach
However, the Purdue Way has also taught us that playing hard is not enough. During his 25 years on the Boilermakers bench, Keady did not take a single team to the Final Four. Not one. The school's only appearances in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament were in 1969 and 1980. The Boilermakers have never won an NCAA championship.
For all the bruising and sweating that went on during Monday's practice, a whiff of sweet optimism wafted in the air. That's because Purdue returns all five starters from a team that won 27 games and reached the Sweet 16, even though its best player, 6-8 swingman
The makeup of this roster befits the program's hardscrabble, Midwestern roots. Of the 12 players on scholarship, eight are from Indiana. Two others are from neighboring states --- sophomore guard
Monday's practice was a three-hour embodiment of the program's "Play Hard" mantra. When the team broke into five-on-five halfcourt sets (with no dribbling of course), at least 10 or 15 minutes went by without anyone making a basket. Either the players were missing their jumpers, or when someone had a chance to make an open layup, the defender simply wrapped him up. (Whadya gonna do, coach, call a foul?) At one point, Painter got agitated as he demonstrated the proper way to fight through multiple screens. "See this?" he barked as he pressured the offensive player. "I'm not fighting this. I've won! Do things the right way." A minute later, he demonstrated how to legally bump a player as he curls around a screen. At Purdue, basketball is a contact sport.
Painter cannot recall a single possession of zone he has played during his five years in West Lafayette, and the Boilermakers' offense is a basic motion set. The genius is not in the system, but in the execution and the effort. It is all part of Painter's master plan to push Purdue deeper into the tournament.
"Each league has a variety of styles, but when you get to the NCAA tournament, you have to be able to play in the halfcourt and you have to be able to defend in the halfcourt," he said. Painter also pointed out that his team needs to take care of business during the Big Ten season so it can get a higher seed. "You have to put yourself in a better spot than the five seed we got last year," he said. "Yes, you can still get it done far from there, but the percentages say if you have a one, two or three next to your name, you have a better chance."
Painter has some promising freshmen, but none is good enough to get major minutes on a squad with so many returning upperclassmen. Each of the vets are a little better and a little stronger, but Painter does not anticipate anyone making a dramatic jump from last season. "You can make improvements but you can't change your identity," he said. "A lot of our guys are going to be able to do some things a little better, but they're not going to change who they are on the court."
Needless to say, this team is going to have to play really hard -- and really well -- to make it to the season's final weekend. Here, then, is my breakdown of a bona fide Final Four contender: