Tipoff: Ohio State at Purdue, 1 p.m., Dec. 31
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Purdue doesn't waste youth on its basketball young. If you can play, you do play. If you produce, you get your shot.
Case in point: Freshman forward Basil Smotherman.
He has started the last six games. He matched senior guard Terone Johnson for most minutes played in the road win at West Virginia. Both had 33. Smotherman had a career-high 11 points, plus five rebounds.
By comparison, fellow freshman Bryson Scott, who has twice won Big Ten freshman of the week honors, player only 12 minutes.
Smotherman plays because he produces. He averages 6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 67.3 percent from the field. In his six starts he averages 7.8 points and 6.0 rebounds. He's made 20 of 29 shots.
“He gives us some energy,” coach Matt Painter said. “Not just in games, but in practice. He keeps working and having energy. He gets in the game and he takes shots he can make. He doesn't take a high volume of shots. He plays hard.
“We've got to get him to box out and be more physical, but I really like his approach. He gives us an honest effort and is engaged. He's worked his way past some other guys.”
Smotherman didn't attract much major college attention during his first two years in high school, but then he elevated his play. As a senior at Indianapolis Lawrence North High School he was rated as the Class of 2013's No. 112 player by Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service. ESPN.com listed him as the state's fourth-best prospect.
“I thought he had this kind of ability, but he wasn't being that productive (early in high school),” Painter said. “Then the light turned on for him in his last year at Lawrence North. You started to see some improvements.”
Smotherman's increased playing time has come at fifth-year senior transfer Errick Peck's expense. Peck started the first eight games before moving into an off-the-bench role. Against West Virginia he played just seven minutes, totaling three fouls, two turnovers, two rebounds and no points.
“Earlier I thought it was clear cut that Errick should start ahead of Basil,” Painter said. “Now, in the past two to three weeks, it's been clear cut Basil should start.”
Painter, like most coaches, wants competitive depth to fuel improvement. If you don't produce, somebody else will. In six of Peck's last seven games, he's scored five points or fewer. He has had five games of at least four rebounds in that stretch.
“There's really nothing to talk about,” Painter said. “Somebody has played better than you. Someone has brought us more energy. So I'll play somebody else. If that doesn't send a message, then they normally don't get the message.”
Painter said he has no problem playing Smotherman and Peck (who averages 5.2 points and 4.8 rebounds) at the same time.
“I'd like to see both play at a high level. If they do that, that will force my hand to get them in there at the same time.”
Purdue's huge win at West Virginia gave it much-needed momentum for next week's Big Ten opener against No. 3 Ohio State (12-0). The Boilers (10-3) proved they could win in a hostile environment. It gave them a boost after getting only one other note worthy nonconference win (against 4-8 Boston College) and disappointing losses to Washington State and Butler.
“It just boosted up our confidence a lot,” guard Ronnie Johnson said. “We've got Ohio State, and going into that game knowing that we just played a tough away game, we should go in there with pride and be able to take them down.”
Poise is crucial in the Big Ten. Nail-biters will be everywhere you look and you must handle pressure, physical as well as mental.
Now the Boilers know they can.
“I thought our guys played with a lot more poise than we have been,” Painter said after the West Virginia win. “I thought our effort was better; our poise was better. We made the plays necessary to win.”
Can they do it consistently against Big Ten competition?
We're about to find out.