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October 1, 2013

Purdue's starting point: Stops

If Purdue is going to get back to its winning ways following last season's struggles, it will need to restore its long-standing formula, the pillar of which being defense.

At that end of the floor, the Boilermakers have slipped in recent years, never more so that last season, when only Penn State allowed more points per game among Big Ten teams than the Boilermakers.

Historically, Purdue's not always fielded great defensive teams, but it's mostly been a difficult one to play against, the crux of it being its trademark pressure.

With what Matt Painter hopes will prove to be a bigger, faster, more athletic and deeper roster than he's guided the past few seasons, Purdue's defensive improvement may lie in how effectively it can apply that pressure.

"Defensively, I think we can be really good," Painter said following his team's first practice Saturday morning. "I think we can put a lot of pressure on the ball."

It'll need to.

Purdue's defensive slippage is best illustrated by one telling statistic above all others: Turnovers.

Last season, the Boilermakers averaged the fewest steals of any team in the Big Ten (4.9) and finished 12th out of 12 teams in the league in turnover margin, maybe the single most important statistical measure there is under Painter's philosophy. Last year's team forced fewer turnovers than any other under Painter. Even the '05-06 squad that won nine games generated more takeaways.

For Purdue to reverse course after finishing 16-18 in 2012-13, Job 1 among many is to fix the defense.

The starting point is the point.

Expect the Boilermakers' full-court pressure on opposing ball-handlers to re-appear this season. It's gone away some the past two seasons, whether it was in part due to injury in 2011-12 or due to inexperience and a lack of depth last season.

Now, Purdue feels - or at least hopes - it has three guards capable of adequately harassing opponents 94 feet: Ronnie Johnson, Bryson Scott and Sterling Carter.

Johnson, now a sophomore, feels he's better suited for the role than he was a year ago, due in large part to experience, but Purdue also hopes it has two other strong options.

Scott's uncommon intensity for a freshman may make him ideally suited for the role, at least from mentality and eagerness standpoints.

"We just want to put Bryson in positions to go full throttle," Painter said of the freshman, "then try to educate him offensively and defensively on the cans and can'ts within your system."

Carter, a fifth-year senior debuting at Purdue, says his background at Seattle University and in high school should help him. At both stops, he was part of defenses that pressed full-court.

"Coming into a situation like I'm in with just one year," Carter said, "you can't just learn how to play full-court defense in that one year, I don't think. You have to have the mind set to do it and to want to do it. I already have that and that just (puts) me a step ahead."

Though Scott is only a freshman, but ahead of the curve for his age from a physical strength perspective; Carter, a 23-year-old, is absolutely strong enough.

"(Purdue coaches) talked to me about it before I even came here," Carter said, "telling me that I'd be involved in pressuring the ball a lot full-court. I've gotten my body ready for it this summer."

Carter hopes the trio of Purdue guards will be able to wear down opponents while keeping their own fresh legs by rotating in and out of the game or on and off the ball from possession to possession.

In halfcourt settings, Purdue will again aim to pressure, specifically with its forwards. Errick Peck, Rapheal Davis and Basil Smotherman give Purdue undersized, but athletic and presumably tenacious options to attack bigger players at the 4/"power" forward position and on the wing.

"We’ve got a lot of depth now," Davis said, "so we just put fresh bodies on and just wear down guards."

Once settled into half-court defense, the Boilermakers have the Big Ten's top shot-blocker to rely on in A.J. Hammons, but must improve its "ball-screen defense," Ronnie Johnson said.

"That just comes down to experience and doing what the coaches say," he said, "and making sure the guard and the big are on the same page and communicating with each other."

Purdue's lineups will be influenced heavily by defensive matchups up front. If Jay Simpson shows he can be "trusted" on defense against screens or perimeter-oriented matchups, Painter said, the Boilermakers might be able to put him and Hammons alongside one another often.

"When it comes to big guys," Painter said, "it comes down to defending and whether you can trust them to carry out their assignment when you're not guarding the biggest guy on the court."

Otherwise, small-but-versatile players like Peck, Smotherman and Davis will look to pressure those who might out-size them.

Cohesion has been important during Purdue's early practices, as the Boilermakers' core is older and more experienced, but still joined by half a team's worth of new players.

"Communication. That's the basis of any good defensive team, just talking," said Peck, one of those new players. "We're going to make mistakes on the floor but as long as we're talking to each other and playing hard, we're going to be fine.

"Practices will be very influential in what kind of defensive team we are, but Coach Painter preaches it every day, the importance of communication. By the time the season rolls around, I think we'll be good and ready to go. But as of now if you come and watch practice, it might be a little choppy, certain players not knowing where to go or where to be, but we've played hard these first few practices and it'll continue as we go along."

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Only 11 scholarship players but 11 guys who are versatile and will play big minutes.

Peck and Basil and Rapheal will pressure other team's big guys.

We’ve got a lot of depth now, so we just put fresh bodies on and just wear down guards. With Ronnie, Bryson and Sterling just pressuring the ball all game, just wearing down that point guard, you’ve got A.J. and Jay inside, it’s pretty hard to get off anything against those two. And if you put me, Errick or Basil at the 4, just pressuring the big 4s and make them turn the ball over, so I think we have a real good defensive team.

"At Seattle, we pressed the whole game every game, so I'm pretty used to it. In high school, I did the same thing. It's just about getting back into it after sitting out last year."

"Being a stockier guard, it helps."

"It gives us the opportunity to put a fresh guy on the ball-handler every other possession and not make us tired, but make them tired."


"We're going to get after it, and I'm looking forward to that."

"I think ball-screen defense is probably the biggest thing we have to focus us. … If we can defend that well, we should be good.

"It's just about being smart and getting the younger guys to the point where we can talk and communicate (well). If we do, it'll all take care of itself."

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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