INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue is the youngest team in the Big Ten. For the first time in program history, the Boilermakers have zero seniors on their roster.
That doesn't mean the Boilermakers have no veteran leadership. The four-man junior class has morphed into the face of the program and it has Purdue heading into the Big Ten conference season with three straight victories after an 88-78 win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse today. The victory gives Purdue a 6-2 record and is just its third win in the Crossroads Classic since its inception.
This win was powered by that junior class, led today by Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic, who had 18 points apiece. Hunter had a career-high eight assists and three steals, while Stefanovic was 5 for 7 from 3-point range. Fellow junior Trevion Williams had 14 points and seven rebounds and redshirt junior Aaron Wheeler also had seven rebounds. Crucially, the four combined for 14 assists and just four turnovers.
"Go look at that junior class the last three games," Painter said. "Go look at Sasha Stefanovic, go look at Aaron Wheeler, go look at Trevion, and Eric Hunter, four guys, three games. They're solid to great, and that's what we need. Every night is not going to be your night, but every night you can guard. Every night you can take care of the ball. Every night you can have a great attitude.
"And that's what they've done, and they weren't doing that before. Now, one of the guys was just coming back, but they weren't doing that. You have to get that from people that have played before. It's winning basketball. In the last three games, all of those guys -- Trevion has had a good attitude when I put him on the bench; Aaron has had a good attitude when I put him on the bench."
The player who was just coming back prior to this three-game winning streak is Hunter, whose return from a broken leg in the debacle against Miami (Florida), in which the Boilermakers blew a 20-point lead. It's probably not a coincidence that he was the sparkplug for a response tonight when Notre Dame made a big run and erased a 15-point deficit. Hunter made a 3-pointer to get the Boilermakers back in the lead at 56-53 and added another jumper in a 16-3 run that sealed the game. He was everywhere and has been since he returned, increasing his point total from the previous game three times in a row (11-13-15-18).
"Everybody gets an opportunity, especially in this program," Hunter said of his breakout "At some point everybody gets an opportunity to flourish and do what they do, and I think right now it's my time. ... I give a lot of credit to Coach Painter ... and definitely my teammates. You see I had the ball a lot down the stretch, and they trust me to make those winning plays and get it to the right guys, make shots, and go make plays for myself, as well."
Notre Dame probably had the right strategy for this game. The Irish tried to draw Purdue's bigs away from the rim with a parade of 3-pointers. It didn't exactly work that way, but Notre Dame did have plenty of open shots from beyond the arc. The Irish finished 16 of 41 from deep, but they missed more than a few open ones. If some of those others go down, this game could have ended differently. It's a problem the Boilermakers are going to have to solve, because a lot Big Ten teams will be able to go small against Purdue and put Williams and Zach Edey into difficult situations. Williams, a former guard, can defend on the perimeter a little bit, but he's so big that that's asking a lot from him, especially when Purdue wants him to be an offensive focal point and be one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten, as well.
As the Big Ten schedule gets set to begin in earnest, Purdue is far from a finished product and Painter and the Boilermakers know it. The biggest task going forward will be getting the young players to perform with more consistency so the Boilers have some depth in conference play. Painter said he wants to be put in the position of having to make difficult decisions about minutes because different players are playing well. He feels like he has the talent for that to happen eventually, but some of the younger players – such as Ethan Morton, Isaiah Thompson and Brandon Newman, to an extent – aren't quite there yet.
"Don't act like this was a perfect game," Painter said. "They exposed us and we have to be better. So we have to be mature and understand that we've got to get some things fixed. Once again, I thought overall we played pretty hard. I think we can play harder.
"We've got some young, youthful guys that are talented that just don't understand yet what it means to be disciplined on both ends of the court. They just don't get it yet. But yet they're pretty good, and you've got to try to use their talents and just continue to try to grow and hopefully play through some of those mistakes."
This was how the Boilermakers need to play to be successful: dominate the glass (they 40-31), shoot well from the outside (they went 14 of 28 from 3-point range) and limit turnovers (they only had six, one in the second half). That's a solid foundation and Purdue can win some games even in a difficult Big Ten if it sticks to those core principles. The junior quartet could help make that happen.