Tipoff: Purdue at Michigan, 9 p.m., Thursday
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In the end, Purdue will go as far as its players' maturity will let them go.
Yes, the buck stops with coach Matt Painter. Coaches' jobs depend on getting guys to play to their potential and, perhaps, a little beyond.
For every team, production must match talent. The best teams do that. The struggling ones don't. It's a collective process with the players front and center.
Success comes by doing things the right way and staying far away from dumb fouls, rushed perimeter shots and driving into disaster.
In other words, avoiding the things that got the Boilers beat against Wisconsin.
“We have to get guys to understand they have to do the little things to help us win,” Painter said. “We have a young mind, a young thought. It's not understanding winning basketball. We have to be a more mature team.”
Can maturity arrive in time for Thursday's game at Big Ten-leader Michigan, the conference's hottest team?
To get a resume-building victory, it will have to.
Purdue is struggling to find the tough-minded leadership that personified the program a few years ago. Guys such as Chris Kramer, E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson breathed it. They led in so many ways, and Purdue earned a pair of Sweet 16 appearances because of it.
But those guys are gone and if these 13-7 Boilers want to return to NCAA tourney relevance – and they do – they have to lead like it.
“Leadership starts at the top, with coaches, with older players,” Painter said. “The best way to lead is through action. A lot of players say the right things. Not a lot are doing it. They have to do it, especially when you struggle. They have to carry out assignments.
“There are different types of mistakes. There is the reoccurring mistake. There is the one where you go against the grain of what we want to do. The other is the hustle mistake. Coaches don't have a problem with (hustle mistakes). Those are the ones you can live with. The others you can't live with. You've got to get them fixed.”
Fixing doesn't mean radical changes.
“Whether you win or lose, you don't work on different things,” Painter said. “You just have to be better at what you do.”
Shot selection is a key. Purdue shot 35.4 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from three-point range against Wisconsin. It shot 27.6 percent against Northwestern in its previous game. The Boilers are prone to jacking up perimeter shots early in the shot clock. That was especially concerning against Wisconsin, which had been vulnerable to dribble penetration.
“You talk about being patiently aggressive and that you probe the defense when it is set,” Painter said. “We have too many guys playing through their scoring. We talk a lot about making winning plays. I didn't see a lot of that from our guys (against Wisconsin).”
Added senior guard Terone Johnson: “It's paying attention to the shots you're taking. Most of the shots we missed (against Wisconsin) were bad shots. Most of the shots we made were good shots.
“When guys were covering us, we weren't making shots. We have to go into this game, and the rest of the season, and understand that we can't take shots like that.”
Understanding, like maturity, takes time.
“You watch film, you work with them, you talk with them,” Painter said. “If your issues in November are the same as in January, then it's probably who you are. That's coaching. It's a difficult thing.
“You see a lot of guys at Wisconsin don't play early in their careers who end up being good players. We're not in that position. We don't have a lot of older guys.”
In fact, freshmen Basil Smotherman, Kendall Stephens and Bryson Scott have a combined 24 starts. Sophomores Ronnie Johnson, A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis play extensively.
That youth will face a major challenge in Michigan, which is 7-0 in the Big Ten, 15-4 overall, with three victories over top-10 teams (Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State) to jump to No. 10 in the AP poll.
The Wolverines' Big Ten success is in part the result of their rugged nonconference schedule. They lost four nonconference games and three were against top-15 teams, including No. 1 Arizona.
“Losing some games in the nonconference can help you establish some roles and know who you are as a team,” Painter said.
The Boilers need to establish roles and identity, but mostly they need to play winning ball. And if they do it at Michigan, all the better.