Friday October 30th, 2009

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 Matt Painter made it even more difficult on Monday by forbidding his players to dribble during the entire second half of the practice. "That's something we do a lot," Painter told me afterward. "We take the dribble away so we make it as hard as we can. That way guys have to face up the defense, see what's going on and reverse the ball before they use the dribble. That's something we think is very important."

This is what you might call the Purdue Way, an ethos that became firmly established under former coach Gene Keady. Painter is well-schooled in the Purdue Way, having grown up in Muncie, Ind., before he played for Keady (from 1990-94) and later coached under him for one year before taking over as head coach before the start of the 2004-05 season. "Being in the Midwest, being a blue-collar type of institution, we've always prided ourselves on playing hard. We recruit guys who fit that style," Painter said.

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 Robbie Hummel, was hobbled for most of the season with a stress fracture in his back. Hummel, who will challenge Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and Ohio State's Evan Turner for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, is as healthy and strong as he has ever been. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Purdue's toughness and experience, mixed with its considerable talent, will enable the team to reach the Final Four --- which, as it happens, will be held just 66 miles down I-65 in Indianapolis.

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 Lewis Jackson is from Illinois and sophomore guard Ryne Smith is from Ohio. Sandi Marcius, a 6-9 freshman, hails from Serbia, but he spent a year playing high school ball 123 miles away in LaPorte, Ind.

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:

Heart and soul: Hummel. Hummel's back was so bad last season that he had to wear a hard brace on and off the court. Now, he is brace-and pain-free for the first time in seven months, and it shows. Hummel will never wow you with his athleticism, but he is strong, efficient and highly skilled. It would help if he demonstrated more vocal leadership, but when this team needs a basket, there is no doubt whom they're going to.

Most improved: JaJuan Johnson. This is more of a lifetime achievement award than an assessment of the strides the 6-foot-9 junior has made since last season. Johnson came to campus weighing 170 pounds, but now he weighs 210 and can bench-press 285. He has improved his offensive skills considerably over the last two years, but he is still primarily a rebounder and shot blocker. He's also not what anyone would consider to be a "high-energy" guy. Johnson was invisible for most of Monday's practice, but Painter told me afterwards that he always starts slow. That won't be a problem as long as he finishes strong.

Glue Guy: Chris Kramer. The 6-3 senior guard has undergone two leg surgeries, yet he has led the Big Ten in steals the last two seasons and was the 2008 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. When Hummel missed five games last year, Kramer even spent some time playing power forward. He is tough, smart and flat-out mean when he wants to be. Kramer is the kind of guy who will beat you up, steal your lunch money and apologize for it later.

X factor: Keaton Grant. The 6-4 senior guard started all but one game as a sophomore and made 44 percent from three-point range. Then he sat out five months following off-season knee surgery and had a disappointing junior season, shooting 36 percent from the floor and 34.0 percent from three. Now, however, Grant is again healthy and confident. He spent lots of time this summer working on his shooting and looked crisp and accurate during Monday's practice. If he can give the Boilermakers a consistent shooter off the bench, it will be a huge boost.

Lost in the shuffle: Ryne Smith. The 6-3 sophomore might be Purdue's best stationary shooter, a skill that will come in handy if opponents go zone. But this team is flush with talented perimeter players, so it's hard to envision Smith cracking the middle of the rotation. Smith has the potential to be an impact in the future, but for now he's going to have to bide his time.

Bottom line: During the early part of the season, Purdue should be better than some of the younger teams at the top of the rankings. (Texas, Kentucky and North Carolina are prime examples.) The question is whether those teams will pass Purdue late in the year when the frisky youngsters grow up. As much as I admire the way this team plays, the fact is, you usually have to have a number of NBA-caliber players to win a title. Outside of Hummel, the Boilermakers do not have that. Purdue should end up no lower than a three seed and I can see them making a regional final. But Indianapolis? It's a lot further than 66 miles away.

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