BENNER: Baby Boilers and their coach are all grown up

November 14, 2009

Ah, kids. They grow up so fast.

Take Matt Painter, for example.

It seems like it was just yesterday that Painter, out of Delta High School near Muncie, was a player for Coach Gene Keady’s Purdue University basketball team. The team’s media guide refers to his “leading” Purdue to three NCAA and an NIT tournament appearances from 1990-1994. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but certainly Painter was a solid if not spectacular player who played with both poise and a keen basketball savvy. Plus, he was one of those student-athletes who was fun to be around because he didn’t take himself too seriously.

I also remember thinking he’d be a good coach some day.

Then all of a sudden, there he is on the Mackey Arena sideline at his alma mater. And in short order, he has emerged from the long shadow of his mentor and predecessor, Keady. Entering his fifth season, Painter’s Boilermakers are coming off a 27-win, Sweet Sixteen season that included the Big Ten Tournament championship. They’re ranked seventh as the season begins, a season that ends, coincidentally, with the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Ah, kids. They grow up so fast.

Take the “Baby Boilers” for example. Just a couple of years ago, that’s what they were calling Painter’s team, which was built around a top-five-ranked freshman recruiting class. It featured Franklin Central High School’s JaJuan Johnson, East Chicago’s E’Twaun Moore and Valparaiso’s Robbie Hummel. Now they’re one of the most feared sets of junior class triplets in the country, all grown up and ready to lead Purdue to college basketball’s promised land at the corner of South Street and Capitol Avenue. At least that’s the hope.

It’s Painter’s primary task to throw a lasso around all the expectations and keep the Boilers roped in to the present.

“We need to just worry about today,” Painter says. “And we’ve got to do a better job in Big Ten play,” he continues, looking back at Purdue’s second–place regular-season finish, four games behind champion Michigan State University. “Our goal is not the Final Four. You just don’t springboard into the Sweet Sixteen and play two games and go to the Final Four. We have to have a better resume going into the NCAA tournament to give ourselves a better chance. You have to understand that having those 1s, 2s and 3s [seeds] next to your name does help you. You’ve got to have some breaks in terms of matchups and you’ve got to make those breaks in terms of how you play. Our goal is to win the Big Ten. If we do that, it puts us in a better position, even if it doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Neither does being loaded with veteran talent come with a guarantee, but it sure helps. In addition to Johnson, Moore and Hummel, the Boilers also return senior defensive stopper Chris Kramer, sophomore point guard Lewis Jackson and senior sixth-man/sharpshooter Keaton Grant.

Painter stresses that Purdue has to be more imposing physically, a weakness exposed in the team’s NCAA loss to the University of Connecticut. But that doesn’t necessarily include the lithe 6-10, 215-pound Johnson, who has serious upside.

“A lot of people go on about JaJuan Johnson [getting] stronger but in reality he has an advantage on almost every [post player] because he’s quicker and longer than the guys he plays against,” Painter says. “He just has to be more consistent in his effort.”

Hummel is likely the key after missing three games and being hampered with a back injury last season. Purdue was a lesser team without him. He’s fully healthy now.

“He has a selfless demeanor,” Painter says. “He’ll do anything to try to help us win—if it means taking fewer shots, rebounding, defending, doing the little things. He makes everyone around him better.”

Yet, as good as all of Purdue’s veterans are, Painter points to his freshman class as key in providing depth and strength, especially 6-foot-8-inch Patrick Bade (pronounced BAY-dee) from Franklin Central; 6-foot-5-inch D.J Byrd from North Montgomery; and 6-foot-9-inch, 260-pound Sandi Marcius (currently sidelined with a broken foot) from LaPorte LaLumiere.

“I really like our freshmen,” Painter says. “I think those guys coming in can play big roles. They all have good physical bodies, and that’s what we need. But they have a ways to go.”

If those kids grow up quickly, look out. And at Purdue, it seems to be a pattern.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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