Tipoff: Indiana at Purdue, 4 p.m., Saturday
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COLUMBUS, Ohio - This could have been, should have been, Rapheal Davis' defining college moment. A season of struggles had morphed into one of, at least from a shooting standpoint, perfection.
The numbers at Ohio State were impressive -- 5-for-5 shooting, including a three-pointer -- for 11 points along with a pair of rebounds and a steal against the Big Ten's best defense.
But that was just the superficial. In this bottom line sports world, where winning is everything despite what myth makers preach, Purdue had lost. So had Davis.
The former South Side standout found no satisfaction.
“It's not about (stats),” he said. “It hasn't been about that for a long time. I try to give myself up for the team. I'll do whatever it takes. Whether I have zero points or 10 points, a loss is a loss. It doesn't matter if it's a loss. I just try to play hard.”
Davis always plays hard. It's a constant even when production falters. Despite the gloom that followed the Ohio State defeat, coach Matt Painter offered praise.
“Ray is a hard worker. He works at it. He competes. He was efficient getting the ball in the basket.”
Still, Davis wants more. He is 6-5 and 211 pounds, and can play a variety of positions. He is capable of more.
“It was all right. It could have been better. Everybody could have played better. Having a good game isn't not about stats, it's about going your hardest and getting loose balls. I could have been better.”
Davis has thrived before, such as his 14-point, seven-rebound performance against Central Connecticut State last November, or his career-high 21 points (on 8-for-9 shooting) he had last season against Notre Dame, or twice totaling nine rebounds last season against Michigan and Santa Clara.
Mostly this has been a season of minimal impact despite maximum effort. Davis averages fewer points (4.6 to 5.7) and rebounds (2.8 to 3.9) than he did last year. In his previous three games he'd totaled four points and six rebounds.
He's been part of the Boiler struggles and will be part of the solution. The key, he said, starts with doing the little things.
“It's coming to work every day. It's coming in extra, watching extra film, getting up extra shots, lifting extra weights. It's becoming a better all-around person. It's going class. It's little things that carry into games, whether that's missing breakfast or missing a class. They all carry over. We have to be better all around.”
Purdue has seven more regular-season games to become better. It has a week to dwell on what have been at Ohio State -- it trailed 48-45 with just over nine minutes left before being outscored 19-4 thanks to its self-destructive tendencies -- as well as focus on Saturday's game against rival Indiana.
“We should have won,” Davis said. “We got it down to one possession. We have a couple of turnovers in a row, turnovers that led to baskets and broke us apart. They separated the game.
“We have to be better moving forward.”
That's easy to say, hard to do for this group. They make the same mistakes in February they made in November.
As Painter has said, maybe this is who they are.
Painter is a good coach facing a tough run. For six straight years he led Purdue to at least 22 victories and winning Big Ten records. Last year's 16-18 record (8-10 in the conference) was a setback.
This was supposed to be a return-to-glory season. It hasn't worked out that way. The Boilers have lost five of six games to fall to 14-10 overall, 4-7 in the Big Ten. There are no sure victories left on the schedule, and at least four likely defeats (Michigan State, Michigan, at Iowa, at Wisconsin).
There are a variety of reasons for this drop-off -- players leaving (Sandi Marcius), players being kicked off (Kelsey Barlow), missing out on big-time in-state recruits such as Gary Harris and Brandon Dawson (both to Michigan State), and a lack of overall maturity.
The Boilers make bone-headed mistakes at the worst times. Against Ohio State, their 15 turnovers led to 18 points, the Buckeyes' margin of victory. They take bad shots at bad times, which become turnovers in every way except the box score.
There are no scholarship juniors and just two long-term seniors, and one can't make free throws (Terone Johnson shoots just 58.7 percent from the line, and has missed his last seven) and the other barely plays (Travis Carroll has seen zero action the last two games). The best player, 7-foot center A.J. Hammons, is alternately the Big Ten's best big man and one of its most inconsistent.
In Saturday's final 18 minutes, Hammons didn't score and finished with five turnovers against Ohio State double teams.
“He did a poor job of recognizing things,” Painter said. “He knows where the guys are to pass to, and he just got stripped. You can't let them take the ball from us. If you've got two to three people on you, you've got to pass. Make the next pass. It's something we work on with him every day. He gets where he's pretty good at it, then he reverts back.”
Purdue has talent, at least from a physical standpoint, but not the team-wide toughness and attention to detail Painter is used to working with. This reflects its youth (seven key contributors are freshmen or sophomores) and recruiting.
Next year's class of 6-7 Vince Edwards, 7-2 Isaac Haas, 6-5 Dakota Mathias and 6-9 Jacquil Taylor is not Kentucky spectacular, but it has potential (ranked No. 28 nationally by Rivals.com, a national Internet recruiting service). Edwards has Robbie Hummel traits that could be a difference maker next season.
“I think he can be a fantastic player here,” Painter said. “He can help us with his decision making. He has a chance to be a great decision maker with some size.”
For now Purdue has one big question to answer -- does it want to grow up and beat Indiana? Everything else is just talk.