It’s pretty fitting that Purdue’s mascot wears a hard hat.
While many Big Ten teams have a blue-collar mentality built on toughness — it’s kind of the conference’s thing — the Boilermakers perhaps do it better than anyone with some of the best defense you’ll see in college basketball.
“You’ve just got to understand that if you don’t play defense, you won’t play,” Purdue guard Rapheal Davis said last month during Big Ten basketball media day. “It’s as simple as that at Purdue.”
Davis ought to know, he was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season. That blue-collar philosophy got a pretty good visual aid when Davis dove into press row during the Big Ten Tournament.
Doing it with defense isn’t the sexiest way to win college basketball games, maybe, but it’s a way that could work big time for Purdue in 2015-16. The Boilermakers are somewhat quietly loaded this season, headlined by a menacing front court that features two seven-footers in A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas, as well as all-everything freshman Caleb Swanigan, a highly rated big man who is perhaps the biggest recruit of the Matt Painter Era. And Davis leads a cavalcade of guards who can defend and score.
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Purdue isn’t getting the attention of Maryland and Michigan State or even Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. But don’t worry. The Boilers are fine with flying under the radar a bit.
“We’re going into this season still with a chip on shoulder, just as we did going into last season,” Davis said. “We didn’t get picked to win the Big Ten. We didn’t get picked preseason to go to the Final Four or anything like that. Same as last year. We didn’t get picked for anything last year. Actually, we got picked closer to last last year.
“It’s going in, understanding that preseason rankings won’t be talked about in the locker room, preseason expectations won’t be talked about in the locker room and going out there and putting on your hard hat and going to work every single day and trying to win the day each day.”
Putting on that hard hat. Just like Purdue Pete himself.
Hammons will likely be the biggest key for the Boilermakers this season. A senior with a ton of Big Ten experience, Hammons is one of the best defensive players in the conference, a shot-blocking expert who earned both Second Team All-Big Ten honors and Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors a season ago.
Hammons was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 11.9 points per game, as well as its leading rebounder (6.6 boards per game), shooter (54 percent from the field) and shot-blocker (2.8 swats a game). He led the league in blocks, ranking fifth in field-goal percentage and seventh in rebounding.
Oh, and he could be even better this season.
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“I think A.J., his body has changed even more. I think he lost about 21 pounds. I think he’s moving better. I think his mindset is even better. He wants to be the best center in the country,” Davis said. “He wants to block as many shots as he can. Everybody knows he’s going to do that, but then coming into the summer people just think of him as a shot-blocker, a rim-protector. And his offensive game has really expanded. Leaner, he’s gotten quicker on the perimeter, he’s gotten quicker making his moves, he’s gotten more athletic in his hook shots. I think he’s a guy, when he’s rolling, he’s a guy that can’t be stopped defensively, a guy that people won’t want to drive against. He’ll make a lot of guys shoot jumpers.”
Apart from Hammons, Purdue has plenty of guys who can spark the team on a given night.
Davis was the only other player on the team last season to average double figures in scoring. He’ll be relied heavily on again, but he has shot makers and role players around him in Vince Edwards, Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and Basil Smotherman. Plus, the team is thrilled about the addition of graduate transfer point guard Johnny Hill, who could serve a similar role that Jon Octeus did a season ago.
And down low, Haas and Swanigan should provide boosts, as well.
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This team is a decently experienced one, and that is making it easier to improve.
“It makes it a lot easier,” Davis said. “I think it makes it easier on the coaches, as well, because there’s times at practice coach doesn’t have to speak. I get on guys, AJ gets on guys, even Jonny Hill will get on guys. Even though it’s his first year at Purdue and he doesn’t really have the Purdue experience yet, he has other-school experience. He’s still a fifth-year senior, he’s seen a lot. And our young guys, they understand why we can get on them, why do we get on them. They’re not a group where they try to fight it. They’re very cerebral, and they take everything in.”
Painter’s team reached the NCAA tournament last season, ending up on the right side of the bubble to snap a two-year stretch of missing the Big Dance. But again the Boilermakers were bounced in the early rounds, and Painter has never had a team make it past the Sweet Sixteen.
Will this be the season that changes? With the senior leadership of Davis and Hammons and a packed roster of impact players around them, the Boilers should be able to compete with all the contenders for the Big Ten title.
They’ve just got to put on that hard hat and go to work.