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March 26, 2013

'Next year starts right now'

Coming off a season that quickly deviated off track and was defined by a young Purdue team's inconsistency, among other things, the Boilermakers enter a crucial offseason, beginning right now.

Purdue, though, feels it's close.

On paper, it'll be expected to return most of this season's key contributors, with many of the most talented players in the program, this year's freshmen, standing to improve by sheer virtue of a season's worth of experience.

"This offseason is all about getting back to Purdue basketball," said senior-to-be leading scorer Terone Johnson following Purdue's season-ending loss to Santa Clara Monday night. "I thought Dru and D.J. said it the best they could say it. When they left, they told me, Travis (Carroll) and Sandi (Marcius) it was going to be our (team) next year and asked us simply, 'Do you think you can get the program back to Purdue basketball?' Next year starts right now, I think."

It's some very basic elements of the game, Terone Johnson said, that must improve prior to next season.

"I'd have to say energy throughout the whole team," he said. "We're playing Division I basketball at a Big Ten university and people were kind of taking that for granted at first. And not only that, but I'd have to say working hard every day consistently, just being consistent throughout the whole season. I don't think there was anybody who was consistent all the way through, including myself."

Coach Matt Painter, who took Purdue to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments before enduring his first losing season since his first season back in West Lafayette, took issue with his team's collective work ethic this season, something he'll hope to see change in the short term.

After Purdue was bounced from the Big Ten Tournament by Nebraska, a surprising result after the Boilermakers had closed the regular season playing their best basketball, Painter talked of the need for "12-month guys" in terms of players' commitment to improvement.

That was only part of the problem as Purdue finished 16-18.

"Each guy has to make to make their improvements. We have to be more consistent in our decision-making and we have to have more skill. Once again, we're 1-for-11 from three," Painter said following the Santa Clara game. "We have to be able to simply make an open shot, especially when you have a couple post players. … It's a normal process when you have a younger team. You get a lot of guys experience and you hope as you continue to grow as a group, you can make more winning plays. Santa Clara made more winning plays than us, even though the numbers show we did some good things, they were quicker to the basketball than we were."

Purdue's roster will be a moving target, but its core should return.

Terone Johnson will be a senior after earning All-Big Ten honors as a junior. Sophomores-to-be Ronnie Johnson, A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis will all be sophomores after all logged big minutes as freshmen, the trio combining for 72 games started. Fellow rookie Jay Simpson, who Painter has called the most talented player in the program on more than one occasion, comes out of redshirt after sitting out the majority of this season due to lingering foot problems.

It remains to be seen whether center Sandi Marcius, who's on pace to graduate in the summer, will return; Purdue absolutely hopes he does.

"I thought he was great in the last month of the season," Painter said. "I thought he had energy and played hard, just did a great job for us."

Incoming freshmen Bryson Scott, Kendall Stephens and Basil Smotherman are a highly regarded group and Purdue has aggressively recruited for springtime help and will continue to do so by combing the high school, prep school and junior college ranks, while also keeping an eye out for potential one-year fifth-year transfers.

But Purdue's outlook for next season will be most profoundly affected by the progress made by those existing currently in the program, the reason Painter wanted his team to play in the College Basketball Invitational, where it beat short-handed Western Illinois before getting pushed into the offseason by Santa Clara's Kevin Foster, who scored 34 points.

"I felt, just like everybody else who's been in this tournament that's been in the NCAA Tournament, that this isn't where you want to be," Painter said. "We went to six straight NCAA Tournaments. This isn't where you want to be, but it's also life. Sometimes in life, you're not exactly where you want to be. Make the most of it. Do what's best for your program and your players, even if they don't agree with it.

"A lot of people don't realize what we've been through here, especially as a young group. You come for summer school, you practice for 10 days and you go to Italy. It makes for a really long year. I wanted our guys to continue to fight. I thought at times during the season we didn't have the fight necessary to beat people in our league. It's one thing when the ball doesn't go in or maybe you're not quite talented enough but you should keep fighting people. Even when we got against our rival a couple times, I didn't think we had the necessary fight and so when I had to make my decision at the end I thought this was the best thing to do, to play, and I still feel that way. I'm not going to give in to them."

The final outcome wasn't what Purdue wanted, but the Boilermakers did fight, at the end anyway.

After Foster's heroics and most of the same flaws that had plagued the Boilermakers all season left the home team down 10 with two minutes left, Purdue managed to scratch itself into a position where it had two cracks to tie the game in the final eight seconds.

"Coach Paint said he put us in the tournament just to see how hard we were going to play," Ronnie Johnson said. "I thought we fought pretty well."

It's such intangibles that will probably have a greater say-so in Purdue's improvement, or lack thereof, from this season to the next.

"Sometimes, it's a by-product of youth, because it's hard. It's really hard being good," Painter said. "It takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of togetherness. We just have to learn from this, go through the process and hopefully be in a better position next year."

Copyright, Boilers, Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Reproducing or using editorial or graphical content, in whole or in part, without permission, is strictly prohibited. E-mail GoldandBlack.com/Boilers, Inc.

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