Purdue's new look brings renewed hope

The struggles of last season compounded to a nightmare season for Matt Painter. This offseason, the head coach went out to ensure the Boilermakers would return to their blue-collar ways. Now, there's renewed hope as the new season arrives.

In just a short time on the Purdue beat, I've learned to read Matt Painter like a book.

Purdue's ninth-year head coach remains the same even-keeled guy, never getting too high in success or low in the losses. With each postgame press conference, Painter is careful with his words and offers honesty—sometimes, it's brutally honest. It's not difficult to decipher how he feels about his team.

The struggles of last year hurt Painter down to his core. Everything he wants Purdue to be—a hard-working, blue-collar team—it wasn't. The frustration was evident in each of those postgame pressers. But this team is different.

The immaturity is gone, flushed out of the locker room. That's the greatest, most important change in the program. These Boilermakers understand wins won't come without work.

This past offseason became the Boilermakers' most important since Painter took over as head coach. It was the bridge between their greatest failures and a potential return to the program's standard. Without hard work, another below-average season would be waiting for Purdue. The players bought in on their coach's challenge.

"As a coach, you're always a little greedy," Painter said on Thursday. "You always want more. That's your job to push them, to make sure they don't get comfortable. For us, we had the best offseason we've had in a couple years. The guys put in time. But more than that, they continued to come in and work on their games."

In typical Painter fashion, he tempered the praise. Trust me on this when I say he's happy.

A turnaround starts with Purdue's senior leaders, Terone Johnson and Travis Carroll. The two have enjoyed NCAA Tournament success in their collegiate careers. That's what made last year's struggles hurt even more.

Workouts start and finish with the guidance of Johnson and Carroll, who have carried the burden for the Boilermakers. They pushed their young teammates who thought a ticket to the big dance would be handed to them.

"You've got to be patient with them," Carroll said. "It's good to see they're all trying to learn, and they're all very coachable with what they do. They want to win; they want to do the right thing. "

To bolster the Boilermakers' senior leadership, Painter went to opposite ends of the country to find character. He brought in Sterling Carter, the standout shooter who was poised to become Seattle University's all-time leading scorer, plus Errick Peck, a stretch-four forward from Cornell who's just as impressive off the court.

Painter likes the two transfers so much, he named them both team captains—only after a few months of being in West Lafayette. They bring another example of what Purdue should be.

The beneficiaries have been those freshmen and sophomores, the guys who will carry the torch when the team's leadership moves on. The newcomers, Bryson Scott, Basil Smotherman and Kendall Stephens, have practiced like it's their fault Purdue played in the CBI. They meshed right in.

To reshape the culture of his Purdue program, Painter went out to find blue-collar guys. Success in West Lafayette starts in the offseason.

"I like competitive people," Painter simply stated, detailing his new-look roster.

The early returns have been positive. This Boilermaker team looks poised to play in March (not the CBI or any other weird, dressed-up tournament). I've pegged this squad as a seven-seed in the NCAA Tournament. I wouldn't even say that's overly confident.

Purdue has talent on this roster, top to bottom. With Bryson Scott and Ronnie Johnson, there's a good problem at point guard. Who will get the starting nod? You can't go wrong with either one. There's Terone Johnson, the senior who's ready to be the Boilermakers' go-to scorer. He's primed for a big year. Same with Rapheal Davis and Jay Simpson, who should make a big impact this year.

The greatest question remains A.J. Hammons, the sophomore center who's thrilled to move past his freshman year. After being suspended for violation of team rules—missing Purdue's two exhibitions and the opener with Northern Kentucky—the concerns of his dedication returned. Hammons has NBA potential, but he won't reach that without hard work in practice and consistency in games.

Different from last year, though, is Painter can have a quick trigger with Hammons. If he underachieves, there are options on the bench. Purdue can switch in Travis Carroll and Jay Simpson, or run a smaller lineup with these versatile forwards. Depth and experience will carry this team through adversity, something it didn't have before.

"Last year, we had too many people that were young playing, and too many people that were really not bought into what we were wanting to do," Painter explained.

What they—most of them, at least—wanted to do was be an NCAA Tournament team. Success didn't show for those Boilermakers. The locker room needed leaders. Painter went out to ensure a change in culture, and the Boilermakers bought in. That's why the head coach is happy with his team.

This season will be different. Purdue has a new look that will bring it back to prominence.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Northwestern Wildcats, and currently covers the Purdue Boilermakers. A Chicago native, he resides in West Lafayette.
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