Ahead of the Wolfpack's big game at Purdue on Tuesday night, I caught up with Travis Miller, who runs SB Nation's Boilermakers community, Hammer & Rails. His answers to a handful of my questions are below. The other half of this Q&A will run over at H&R.
BTP: Based on what you've seen from the Boilermakers so far, how do you think they stack up within the Big Ten? Do you expect this team to reach the NCAA tournament?
TM: I was very pleased that they recovered well and won two games out in Maui. Missouri may not be any good at all, but the BYU game was a very gritty dogfight and Purdue was resilient enough to win. It was the type of game where last year's team would have folded and lost, but it played hard down the stretch and was able to get a win vs. an NCAA caliber team.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, it is tough to say. We get a bonus in getting to play Rutgers twice. The middle of the Big Ten though is ridiculously tough. You have Wisconsin far and away at the top, Rutgers buried at the bottom, and 12 teams in the middle that can probably beat each other on any given night. I think we can be an NCAA team because the BYU game is the type that we'll see night in, night out in the conference and we grew a lot in winning it. It won't be easy though.
BTP: What's the most surprising thing about this team at this point?
TM: It is extremely young, but it plays together and has a lot of balance. That is what has been missing the past two seasons. Purdue has been unable to play together for any length of time and it really looked like the guys didn't even like each other at times. We're now playing a graduate transfer and two juniors as "experienced" guys, but finally everyone is on the same page.
The addition of Jon Octeus has been incredible. He wasn't even able to enroll until after practice started this fall and he looks like he has been playing in West Lafayette for four years. He is a huge pickup that plays Purdue style of basketball. By that I mean he doesn't take plays off, plays nasty defense, and he is very team-oriented.
BTP: What are some trouble spots you're worried could be nagging problems all season?
TM: It is probably consistency, mostly because that has been our problem for the past two years. We have looked pretty good at times only to completely come apart a minute later. So far this team has been a lot better, with only the first half of the Kansas State game being a regression to "old" Purdue.
Turnovers have also been an issue, as that is what cost us dearly in the first half against KSU. We gave up way too many points on turnovers in transition and the hallmark of good Purdue teams in the past have been taking care of the basketball.
BTP: The last couple of seasons were unusually bad by Matt Painter's standards--what went wrong? Is it as simple as losing key talent?
TM: We had the talent. We had several top 100 players on the roster but there was no cohesion. One 4-star recruit, Jay Simpson, was lost when it was discovered he had a heart condition that ended his career. Ronnie Johnson had a habit of only passing to his brother, Terone Johnson, and they tried to play a little too much two-on-five. Terone graduated and Ronnie transferred to Houston after last season. Terone was a solid player, but he was never the leader he was needed to be last year. Ronnie was simply a bad fit, which is never good for your point guard.
The last two teams did not play Purdue-level defense and never moved without the basketball. That meant the offense became stagnant hero ball of drive after drive to the basket one-on-one, and that is not our offense. Also, there were few good passes into the post to A.J. Hammons, who is only an NBA caliber center.
BTP: Who are the newcomers on this team that we need to be familiar with? What are they bringing to the table?
TM: Purdue is a deep team with four of our five freshmen playing significant minutes. Octeus has been great as a one-year transfer that does a little bit of everything without trying to be selfish. Isaac Haas, a 7'2" center, looks very good as a true freshman backup to Hammons. Vince Edwards is a versatile forward that takes some of the rebounding edge off of Haas/Hammons and can score both inside and out. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after his first two games and had a huge BYU game.
The other two freshmen are P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias. Thompson is a promising freshman point guard and Mathias gives us a second long-range shooter with Kendall Stephens. Both Mathias and Thompson have shot the ball pretty well and are good passers.