Going into this season, there were so many question marks about this team that it was almost impossible to get a real feel for how good (or bad) they might be. These question marks included:
(1) Did Kiefer, Teague and McKnight improve over the summer and develop into consistent, reliable players that can lead this year’s team?
(2) Will the 4 newcomers (Ware, Dillon, Price and Landry) make a positive contribution, or will they turn out to be role players that will take a year or more to be significant contributors?
(3) Can players like Nwankwo, Liddell, Carroll, Ford and Hartley play back-up minutes and be productive?
(4) Can Purdue stop anybody on the defensive end?
Last night’s exhibition game against Washburn gave a few glimpses of how some of the question marks might be answered, but since the competition was hardly the caliber Purdue will face during the season, the only thing conclusive about last night’s game in my mind was that the 4 newcomers (Dillon, Ware, Landry and Price) are all very capable of playing Division I basketball. Of the 4, I was most impressed with Landry and Price and it appears to me that Price is better than one might expect based on the “ratings” of the recruiting “experts”. It was only one game, but Xavier looked very comfortable on the floor, looked to have a nice “stroke” on his shot and was much better than I anticipated.
As for Question mark number 1 – I think Kiefer is much improved over last year. He is clearly stronger and shot the ball with confidence and mixed it up pretty well inside. He played really well in the 1st half, but faded in the 2nd and had trouble finishing (a holdover problem from last year) a couple of times. There’s no question that his level of play is going to be a key factor for Purdue this year. He’s got to score, rebound and defend if Purdue is going to be any good, because he’s going to play a lot. I saw some encouraging signs from him last night, but it’s way too early to draw any conclusions. As everyone knows, Teague will not play for a few more weeks, but based on what I saw last night, he’s going to have to be Purdue’s main offensive weapon from outside because there just doesn’t appear to be anyone else other than perhaps Price that can shoot from the perimeter with any degree of consistency. That brings me to Brandon McKnight and I’d have say that based on what he showed last night, if I was an opposing coach I wouldn’t worry too much about his outside shooting. Of all the things I was looking to see last night, Brandon’s performance was the most disappointing. I can live with his shot being off, but he got in foul trouble and really didn’t display any of the leadership qualities that I expected out of him. Like Kiefer, it’s way too early to reach any conclusions, but I was disappointed in the early returns.
As I mentioned earlier, I think all 4 of the newcomers will make significant contributions this year. Of the 4, Carl Landry is the most explosive athlete and the one guy who looks like he is most ready to play Division I basketball. It surprised me a little that he wasn’t in the starting line-up, but at this point in the year Keady is no doubt “sending messages” to his players and perhaps in Carl’s case, Gene is just trying to give him some added motivation in practice. I think Carl has tremendous potential and has a chance to be the best JUCO player Gene has ever recruited at Purdue. As mentioned above, Xavier Price was a pleasant surprise and I think he will end up playing a lot this year. He had the most minutes of anybody last night (partly due to McKnight getting in foul trouble) and he should do nothing but improve as the year goes on. Bryant Dillon started at the point and did a workmanlike job there. I don’t think he’s going to make people forget guys like Everette Stephens, Tony Jones or Rickie Hall, but I think he will provide solid back-up minutes for Brandon once David Teague returns from his injury. Gary Ware was bigger and stronger than I thought he would be and looked like he is very capable of mixing it up inside with the kind of big, strong players he’s going to encounter in Division I. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be a big scorer, but if he can defend and rebound, I think he can make a real positive contribution this year.
Of the holdovers from last year, Ije Nwankwo was easily the most impressive. He came off the bench early and got some buckets underneath and even hit a nice perimeter jump shot. Like Kiefer, he appeared to tire (or lose concentration?) and he wasn’t nearly as productive in the 2nd half. If Ije can learn to hit his foul shots even semi-consistently (he was 1 for 4 last night) he could be a real positive contributor for Purdue this year because he’s such a load inside that he’s going to get fouled a lot. Adam Liddell also played last night and did what I would consider an OK job. He’s long and lanky and can create some problems defensively, but it looks to me like he’s at least a year away from being any kind of consistent factor for Purdue. Matt Carroll didn’t play at all, but apparently he’s still recovering from an injury and I wouldn’t want to read anything into his non-appearance. Andrew Ford started (along with McKnight, Ware, Kiefer and Dillon) and you’ve got to like the energy and enthusiasm Andrew brings to the floor. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have the raw athleticism or deadeye shooting ability that would allow his to play major minutes, but he’s tenacious on defense and I think he’ll give Purdue some solid minutes this year if our starting guards get into the same kind of foul difficulties they got into last night. Chris Hartley also did not play, but I don't know why.
On the defensive end, I thought Purdue got off to a very good start, but once they built a comfortable lead, they appeared to lose concentration and Washburn got an awful lot of uncontested open looks (particularly during the second half). Purdue players were getting beat on back-door cuts, had trouble containing the dribble and in general looked like a bunch on individuals instead of a well-drilled team. Of course, when you consider that only two of the guys playing last night (Kiefer and McKnight) had very much experience playing with one another, it’s not unexpected that they might struggle. Still, if Purdue is going to compete effectively with Division I teams, the defense has to be better than it was last night.
In conclusion, I’d say that this year’s team would most likely struggle in the early going, particularly as long as David Teague remains on the sidelines with injury. I think they have a chance to develop into a pretty good TEAM by the time January rolls around, but only if they can keep everyone healthy and eligible. There is talent there (actually it appears to me to be more raw talent than he had last year), but it’s largely unproven and untested. To me, the key to the season is whether or not Gene and his staff can take the pieces and make the whole stronger than the sum of the parts. He’s done it before and nothing would please me more than to see him do it again this year. If the new guys approach things the way guys like Roy Hairston and Chuckie White approached things, I think Purdue will be fine. If they approach them the way guys like Melvin Buckley apparently approached them, then Purdue could be in for a long season.