INDIANAPOLIS | Matt Painter is turning Purdue into his kind of team.
Purdue's coach sees more versatility and more scorers. Last year's most promising freshmen, center A.J. Hammons and point guard Ronnie Johnson, are on the verge of becoming centerpieces for the future. Practices are more competitive and there's a renewed emphasis on rebounding and defense.
Hey, it's progress.
"Right now, it's about trying to get them to play hard and compete, not beat themselves, take care of the basketball, give a great effort, be physical without fouling," Painter said. "I like our team, I'm excited, don't get me wrong. But I also like to kind of be able to frame what I'm saying with what's going on right now at practice."
Seven months ago, it looked like it would be a long road back to being a Big Ten contender.
That's not the case these days.
Yes, Purdue finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years last season, but the Boilers still finished 8-10 in what many considered America's best conference and now they have a solid foundation on which to build.
The brothers, Ronnie and Terone Johnson, gave Purdue a solid backcourt last season. This year, Purdue has added three big-time scorers to the backcourt.
At times last season, Hammons, the 7-foot center, looked unstoppable. At other times, Hammons looked lost. Painter tried to motivate Hammons with public critiques and has already imposed a three-game suspension for violating team rules.
If Hammons becomes more consistent, he could be one of the best big men in the Big Ten this season. Painter knows it.
"When he prepares himself to play mentally, he's one of the best bigs in the country, not just in our conference," Painter said. "He needs to prepare every single day to make sure he's ready to play."
If Hammons gets the message now, the Boilermakers could be even stronger by the time conference play rolls around.
Here are five other things to watch this season.
Scoring push: The Boilers wanted more scoring balance — and now they have it. A year ago, four players averaged in double figures, and three of them are coming back. Only one other player, Rapheal Davis, averaged more than 5 points per game. He's back, too. But the freshmen have given Painter an infusion of scorers including Bryson Scott and Basil Smotherman, two of the best prep players in the basketball-rich state of Indiana, and Kendall Stephens, the son of former Purdue star Everette Stephens. If they all score, it could be a different season for Purdue.
De-fense: Despite all the offensive talk, Painter is a graduate of the Gene Keady School of Basketball. And nothing frustrated Painter more last season than the Boilers' problematic defense. Purdue allowed the second-highest scoring average (65.1 points) in the Big Ten, and while the Boilers allowed opponents to shoot just 40.1 percent from the field, seventh in the conference, they allowed opponents to shoot 32.8 percent from 3-point range and were outscored from the free-throw line 457-431. Expect those numbers to change in 2013-14.
On guard: Athleticism matters more in today's game than size, something Purdue learned the hard way last season. The Boilers went into 2012-13 with one of the league's bigger teams but still wound up in the middle of the pack in defensive rebounds. This year, Painter has made a notable change. Painter's roster includes nine guards and only one center. That many guards, all listed between 6 feet and 6-foot-6, gives Painter the option of playing three or four at a time without losing much rebounding. It also could create big matchup problems for opponents.
In shape: At 7 feet and 251 pounds, Hammons is one of the most imposing figures in the league. That won't change this season, though he has cut weight. Painter noted that Hammons is in better shape going into the season, something that should allow him to make a bigger impact for longer stretches in more games, giving the Boilers a stronger inside presence — if he stays out of trouble.
Fast start: Purdue has two chances for fast starts. First, it opens the season with five straight home games — none against power conference teams — and with an opportunity to show what the Boilermakers have learned after last season's early stumbles. The schedule-makers also gave Purdue a chance to start quickly in league play. After opening with Ohio State on New Year's Eve, the Boilers play five straight games against conference foes that did not have winning records in league play last season. While three of the five are on the road, a few wins would give Purdue a needed confidence boost before facing the league's top teams.