Let's just get this out there now: Matt Painter isn't going anywhere at season's end. That's the luxury of six consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and a subsequent mega contract. But Painter will enter his tenth season in West Lafayette with immense pressure.
The Boilermakers have seen great regression under the past two seasons, and have to hope Sunday's loss—marking a 12th-place finish in the Big Ten—was rock bottom. Ohio State could have other plans in the first round of the conference tournament. Either way, the focus turns to next season.
The good news for Purdue fans is that there's promise in highly-touted recruits (more on this point below). Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias project to be immediate key players, while Isaac and Jacquil Taylor will play important roles. Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman have shown solid development during their freshmen season, providing hope moving forward.
The real questions—again—surround the juniors-to-be. A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson and Rapheal Davis must take strides forward and become the stars Painter projected them to be. Each must find consistency for year three in West Lafayette. If it all doesn't come together, 2015 could Painter's final season at his alma mater.
2.) Change must come within the roster
The most glaring problem in Purdue's demise has been within the culture of the program. Painter isn't recruiting bad basketball players; he's bringing in guys who don't want to get better. Consistency comes with work ethic, something the collective team lacks. Talent is only shown in spurts.
In the offseason, Painter must really drive home the point to each player during meetings: work your ass off or walk out the door. It's just that simple.
Past post-season meetings have included brutal honesty from Painter in describing future roles. This go-around should be no exception. Purdue will have plenty of depth on its roster next season, and must eliminate the problem players as a result. If he doesn't feel somebody is ready to work and improve, he should chase them out.
3.) Rapheal Davis taking that next step
In times of turbulence, it's important to see out the good, too. While the Boilermakers continue their free fall, a leader has stepped up, both on the court and in the locker room. Sophomore guard Rapheal Davis is showing his importance.
Davis continues to up his game, giving great effort each time on the court. He's just 6-foot-5, but fight for rebounds like a 7-footer. The shots haven't fallen as consistently as he could hope, but the progression is there—evidence of his work ethic.
"If everybody cared and worked as hard as him, we'd be wearing diamonds," Painter said after Sunday's loss to Northwestern.
That's a credit to Davis as much as it is an indictment of his teammates. Perhaps there could be a turnaround next season, one which would stem from a changed culture within the program. If it comes to fruition, Davis will surely be due much credit.
4.) Don't leave, A.J.
Finally, finally, A.J. Hammons is taking steps toward consistency. As suggested before, this stems from work ethic. The big man is showing conditioning, as evidenced by his 36 minutes on the floor against Iowa. He's upping the rebound and block totals. On offense, he's finding consistency by getting comfortable in select shots.
The worst thing A.J. Hammons could do for his NBA future is leave right now. It's finally all coming together for him, slowly but surely. It started in the summer when he dropped more than 40 pounds. The addition of Brandon Brantley has helped the on-court improvements. This is the small sample size of just nine months.
One more year in West Lafayette is just what Hammons needs. He's a lottery pick talent who would fall deep in the second round. 2015 is his year to go pro; it can't be now.
5.) No more excuses
Purdue hasn't seen two straight losing seasons due to youth, lack of talent, bad breaks, or any other excuse that's been thrown out there. The team, as a whole, hasn't shown the heart to improve, to buy into its coach's beliefs.
Matt Painter has been a winner at every stop, and that comes from his work ethic. He asks for the players to reciprocate it. The result of this process is what was produced with Robbie Hummel, Etwaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and so many more. Sure, they were good players, but their improvements under Painter are what made them great.
Painter didn't suddenly become a bad coach. He didn't recruit bad players to this team, either. The team doesn't to work, to match his high standard for the program. That's his fault as a recruiter and his loss as a molder of talent. It's a fundamental failure for the Boilermakers.
Young teams have been successful so many times in the current model for college basketball—the prime example being John Calipari's one-and-done Kentucky championship. That was a team, while very talented, that bought in. Many of his other teams haven't; see last year's NIT blunder for example. Purdue is just looking to get back in the NCAA Tournament. Its problem isn't youth, a lack of talent, and especially not its coach.