For the better part of 40 minutes, Purdue matched Ohio State—arguably one of the nation's best teams—punch for punch. The Boilermakers showed the traits of a talented team. They played with poise and efficiency on offense and buckled down with energy on defense. Above all, they displayed the desire to win.
Overall, it was the most encouraging effort of the season. Still, there's much to improve.
"We're a better team than we were two weeks ago, but we still lost [on Tuesday]," Purdue coach Matt Painter said after the game. "We'll try to watch tape and find things to get better at."
The positives are in those improvements. For the season's first 13 games, Purdue appeared to be a good team but one that possess many flaws. Now, things are changing for the better.
Among the most glowing changes was sophomore center A.J. Hammons, who played the part of dominant big man for the first time this season. His best game of the season saw 18 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.
More importantly, Hammons played with hustle and smarts. He pushed Buckeye big man Amir Williams into early foul trouble—avoiding foul trouble of his own, a problem for much of this season—then took advantage of the mismatches his 7-foot frame creates.
The issues for Hammons were with simple sloppiness. He didn't get good looks with his shots and was on the hook for four turnovers. These are all things for the center to work on.
"I think I played OK," said Hammons on Tuesday. "It was just too many turnovers for me, and then I didn't finish at the basket. 6-for-16, that's just horrible."
Purdue received a punch beyond Hammons' play. Ronnie and Terone Johnson each posted double-figure scoring totals, showing the consistency the Boilermakers needs from their two starting guards. Far too often in nonconference play, neither could be counted on for the steady scoring punch the team needed.
For Ronnie Johnson, the scoring numbers continue to rise from his freshman year. He's becoming more confident with his driving and especially so with the three-point shot. His continued improvements are encouraging, and the strong showing against Ohio State serves a strong sample.
Ronnie's brother has picked it up, too. The senior guard is the only Boilermaker to start in each of the team's 14 games and must be counted on as the go-to scorer. When Purdue needs that big shot, Johnson must be the guy to take it.
The greatest concern with this Purdue team, even from just a few weeks ago, was its lack of an offensive identity. The two games since—a win at West Virginia and loss to Ohio State—have shown steps toward erasing that issue. The 11-man rotation is producing as one. Before, it was used to mix, match and hope for the best.
Against the Buckeyes, Purdue showed promise on defense, too. It held Ohio State to just 44.6 percent from the field and a meager 4-of-22 from beyond the arc. All Buckeye scorers but one shot under 50 percent from the field, and the one was Amir Williams who only attempted three shots.
Purdue dominated the glass, pulling down nine more rebounds than the Buckeyes. This has been a trend in the early part of this season, and it will only continue with Hammons' strong play.
The game against Ohio State was decided by taking advantage of opportunity. Purdue was able to create its chances, but couldn't convert. See the 11 missed three-pointers for example, or only scoring 13 second-chance points on 15 offensive boards. Those 12 turnovers were very damaging, too.
This served as the most significant takeaway for the Boilermakers.
"The fact that we could've been right there," said Terone Johnson. "We felt like a couple more plays at the rim, make the baskets, take away those turnovers, get those 50-50 balls and we would've won the game. That's just something to take hard, but we have to get better. We can't take it as a moral victory."
Added Painter: "You lose, you lose. But if you can learn from it and become a better team, it'll be pretty valuable."
The recent returns from Purdue's play are encouraging. A team that has been so wildly inconsistent at times this season is leveling on a gradual, positive track upward.
Purdue still hasn't played its best basketball, but it's getting there. Soon enough, those what-if losses will turn into wins.