Purdue’s Painter modifies team focus with a great player but loss of four starters

The Boilermakers lost a lot of talent from last season, but their best player, Carsen Edwards, returns.
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One year has completely changed Matt Painter’s perspective.

Last October, the Purdue coach went into games expecting to have the best team on the court. This year, he’s content knowing he has the best player on the court.

Yes, it’s a different way of thinking for Painter, who takes pride in building his program around teamwork rather than individual stars. But graduating four senior starters and welcoming back an All-American, Carsen Edwards, has forced a modification.

“A lot of what he did last year, when he got it going, we couldn’t get it to him enough,” Painter said. “But when somebody else got it going, that’s kind of the piece that’s tough, when you have that scoring mentality.”

This season, there’s no doubt Edwards will be the Boilermakers‘ top scoring option.

He led Purdue last season at 18.5 points per game, became the only returning starter from Purdue’s Sweet 16 team after having declared for the NBA draft and wound up being the lead vote-getter on the preseason All-American team. He’s also the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year. To carry the 24th-ranked Boilermakers to a Final Four, Edwards will need help — and he will have some capable, experienced teammates.

At 6-foot-6, sophomore guard Nojel Eastern saw his playing time increase as last season went along and he possesses the size and versatility to step into Vince Edwards’ old role.

Energetic center Matt Haarms is a better defender than Isaac Haas and spent the summer refining his offensive moves.

Senior guard Ryan Cline came off the bench primarily as a 3-point specialist each of the past three seasons, a seemingly perfect fill-in for the departed Dakota Mathias.

A handful of newcomers could help, too.

Freshman Eric Hunter Jr. and redshirt freshman Sasha Stefanovic each add scoring to a revamped backcourt, while redshirt freshman Aaron Wheeler and Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux give Painter a variety of options on the front line.

Will it be enough to make up for the loss of four starters? Probably not. Then again, having Edwards to build around will help.

“He’s a very dynamic player. He’s unique from a physical standpoint,” Painter said. “He plays through his offense. I think for guys like that, as you get older, you get more experience, more responsibility, but you don’t change who you are.”

MORE CHANGES

Purdue has been known as a throwback team in recent years because of its use of big, bulky guys in the post. This year, the Boilermakers could become a leaner, meaner version of that old-school approach.

The 7-foot-3, 250-pound Haarms relies more on length and flexibility than pure strength. Wheeler, at 6-9, 200 pounds, and freshman center Emmanuel Dowuona (6-10, 230) are built more like Haarms than Swanigan or Haas. Painter’s best options to go big would be Boudreaux, at 6-8, 220, and 6-9, 280-pound freshman Trevion Williams.

SECRET WEAPON

When Cline arrived on campus, he was known as a prolific shooter. Now it’s his time to shine — and Painter believes he will.

“He has a handful of games here the past two years where he ends up winning the game for us. But he would have won a lot more games for us with a lot more opportunity,” Painter said. “I think he’s going to be great. I think he’s somebody that a lot of people aren’t talking about, but he just plays a great role, and he has a lot of basketball character.”

THE GRADUATE

The experienced Boudreaux brings a lot to the table. He was named the Ivy League’s rookie of the year in 2015-16 after averaging 17.7 points and 9.4 rebounds. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds and topped the 20-point mark nine times. Boudreaux sat out last season, choosing instead to focus on graduating in three years so he could transfer to a school that would play in the NCAA Tournament.

THE SCHEDULE

Purdue opens Nov. 6 against Fairfield and faces a rather unique early-season run. The Boilermakers have a potential matchup with Wichita State on Nov. 16 at the Charleston Classic, then visits to No. 17 Florida State on Nov. 28 and No. 19 Michigan on Dec. 1 before hosting Maryland on Dec. 6. Then there’s a trip to Texas on Dec. 9 before squaring off against Notre Dame on Dec. 15 in Indianapolis. They also face back-to-back road games at No. 10 Michigan State and Wisconsin in January.