Boilermakers are going all in with old-school hoops approach

Purdue has a 7-foot, all-conference center in A.J. Hammons.

Matt Painter believes old-school basketball still works.

So the Purdue coach is ditching the small-ball trend and going all in with one of the biggest teams in the nation, hoping it will put the Boilermakers back in the title conversation.

"We want to win the Big Ten. We want to win the Big Ten tournament. We want to make a run to the Final Four," sophomore forward Vince Edwards said. "We want to win the national championship."

It’s not as crazy as it sounds for No. 23 Purdue, which opens against North Carolina A&T on Friday night.

The Boilermakers already have a 7-foot, all-conference center in A.J. Hammons and an improving 7-2 sophomore backup in Isaac Haas. With freshman Caleb Swanigan being cleared to play by the NCAA, they have a 6-9, 250-pound power forward, too.

Indiana’s 2015 Mr. Basketball, Swanigan averaged 22.6 points and 13.7 rebounds in leading Fort Wayne Homestead to the state’s Class 4A championship.

It is believed that the NCAA delayed its eligibility decision because it wanted to be sure that Swanigan’s adoptive father, Roosevelt Barnes, a Purdue graduate and a sports agent who represents professional athletes, placed no pressure on Swanigan to attend Purdue after he first committed to Michigan State and then changed his mind.

Adding Swanigan, one of the nation’s top-ranked freshmen, also allows Painter to move Edwards, a versatile 6-8 sophomore, to his more natural spot of small forward with the option of using 6-6 Rapheal Davis, an all-conference defensive player, or 6-7 Kendall Stephens at shooting guard or small forward.

And these Boilermakers, unlike some of Painter’s more recent teams, are working to prove that they can be better than people think. They went 21-13 a season ago and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

"I was trying to stick to my defense, really, stick to what I’m very good at," Hammons said. "But Caleb comes here and he likes to score. Vince likes to score. Raph likes to score. So they’re pushing me to actually just trash talk for the ball, ask for the ball more, and I’ve got to step up and not focus on defense all the time."

That might run contrary to Painter’s defense-first approach.

But given the circumstances and last season’s surprising third-place finish, and it’s understandable why the Boilermakers are thinking big.

"My sophomore year we were last (in the Big Ten). That’s something I will never forget," Davis said. "I’ve told the guys before I leave, I want to win a Big Ten championship and do bigger things than that."

Last season, the Boilermakers got a big break when grad student Jon Octeus enrolled in the fall and won the starting point guard job. This year, Painter is hoping for a repeat. Though sophomore P.J. Thompson, Octeus’ backup, could win the starting job, the more likely winner might be 6-3 Johnny Hill, who played two seasons at Illinois State and last season at Texas-Arlington.

Painter knows the key area to improve is free-throw shooting. Last season, the Boilermakers finished 10th in the Big Ten, making 68.3 percent. With a full offseason to work on it, Purdue should improve.

Another glaring deficiency last season was Purdue’s inability to make 3-pointers. While only three Big Ten teams made fewer threes than the Boilermakers (195), only one player, Stephens (73), made more than 40. The addition of freshman Ryan Cline should help, but they need a better perimeter game this season.

The Boilermakers are 9-1 in openers under Painter, with seven of the wins coming by at least 25 points. This will be their first meeting with North Carolina A&T, which went 9-23 in 2014-15 and is picked to finish sixth in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The Aggies return all five starters and are led by MEAC preseason first-team selection Bruce Beckford, who averaged team highs of 15.2 points and 7.3 rebounds as a junior last season.

North Carolina A&T, which has been outscored by an average of 43.6 points in losing its last five games to ranked teams, also brings in four newcomers via transfers.

"We’re cautiously optimistic that potentially this is the most talented team we’ve put on the floor since I’ve coached here," fourth-year coach Cy Alexander told the school’s official website. "Overall, we have a very good nucleus of returning players who have been in the program two to three years. Plus, we’ve got a group of newcomers who have upper mid-major experience. Hopefully, we can blend the two entities together and have a successful basketball season this year."