Key Returners: Carsen Edwards, Matt Haarms, Ryan Cline
Key Losses: Issac Haas, Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, PJ Thompson
Key Newcomers: Evan Boudreaux (Dartmouth transfer), Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter Jr., Emmanuel Dowuona
Outlook: There's no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Boilers lose A TON of production from last year's squad which tallied 30-wins and finished one game behind perennial power Michigan State in the conference standings. Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias were two of the top two-way players in the conference while Issac Haas was an absolute force on the low-block. But there are valid arguments as to why Purdue can once again challenge for a Big 10 title and secure a top-5 or top-6 seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Let's start with what we know for sure:
- Carsen Edwards is a bonafide stud: Anyone who tracked Purdue closely during the 2016-17 season was well aware of Edwards' sky-high ceiling. Despite displaying some erratic offensive tendencies as a young freshman, there's a reason Painter was so adamant about playing him big time minutes, even with a deep and veteran laden lineup already in-tact. This commitment paid massive dividends last year as Edwards quickly blossomed into an offensive powder keg and one of the most complete lead guards in the country. He was a hyper-efficient 3-level scorer, and his lightning-quick dribble penetration often drew help-side defenders to set up open 3s for Mathias, PJ Thompson and Ryan Cline, amongst others. And while he'll be asked to carry a gargantuan offensive load this season, I'd argue he's already well groomed for this challenge. Even with Edwards, Mathias and Haas in the core rotation last year, Edwards still posted an exceptional 117 O-Rating on a team leading 29% usage rate (6th highest in the Big Ten). In other words, he's already proven more than capable of shouldering a significant offensive burden without a corresponding drop-off in efficiency.
- Matt Painter can flat out coach: Painter continues to add to his resume as one of the premier game planners and player developers in college basketball. Removing his first season in 2005-06 from consideration, only twice in his 13-season tenure in West Lafayette has Painter failed to make the tournament. Those two seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) are also the only instances in which Purdue fell outside the top-45 in kenpom.com's overall rankings - it's worth noting his best player during that stretch was debatably A.J. Hammons, who doesn't hold a candle to preseason POTY candidate Carsen Edwards.
The Painter / Edwards factor alone should made Purdue a lock to get back to the tournament in 2019 - but let's dive into the uncertainties that need to pan out to push that ceiling even higher:
- Evan Boudreaux's production must translate against Big Ten competition: While it's always guesswork projecting how mid-major transfers will translate against Power-6 caliber opponents, there are precedents of success that should lessen the concerns of any skeptical Purdue fans out there (Eric Paschall at Villanova is one that comes to mind). Painter actually recruited Boudreaux coming out of high school a few years back, but he's not the only big name coach / program that wanted his services. Chris Mack almost lured Boudreaux to Louisville once he announced his intent to transfer this summer, but ultimately the ex-Ivy League standout chose Purdue.
Boudreaux was a workhorse during his two-year stint at Dartmouth where he asserted himself as one of the top two-way rebounders in the entire nation and showcased a unique craftiness as a scorer. He can score from both the low and mid post areas with his back to the basket, but is also effective on the perimeter as a pick-n-pop shooter or slasher - if there's a better head fake in college basketball, I haven't seen it. Sure, he played against watered down competition in the Ivy League, but he certainly has the chops to play with the big boys - just refer to his very first collegiate game as a freshman when he poured in 25 points on just 10 shots against Angel Delgado and Seton Hall.
- Matt Haarms, Nojel Eastern and Grady Eifiert must step into more featured roles: As noted in our preview of Purdue's Sweet-16 showdown with Texas Tech last March, Purdue's offense last season looked significantly different with Haarms on the floor and Haas on the sidelines. While Haas commanded a touch in the post on almost every possession, Haarms is more effective offensively as a 'screen-and-diver'. With Haarms and Boudreaux expected to share the front court for significant stretches of time this year, look for a steady dose of high screen-and-roll action with Edwards as the trigger man. The offense will be Edwards' oyster and he'll have full autonomy to dictate when and how he attacks, much of which will be working off Haarms as the primary screener. This will not be a major shift to the role Haarms played last year offensively, so he just needs to replicate that over more minutes of action.
With Mathias and Edwards out of the picture, Nojel Eastern and Grady Eifert will have giant-sized shoes to fill this season. While Eastern is a former 4-star prospect and highly sought after by many of the nation's elite programs, Eifert is an overachieving walk-on who has earned his right to become a key cog in the rotation. Despite the large variance in recruiting pedigree and overall talent between the two, Eifert and Eastern share identical body types (each about 6'6, 220 pounds) and will be asked to provide a similar value to this year's Boilermaker squad. With their size and physicality, they should emerge as lockdown perimeter defenders who will match up with the opponents best guard / wing tandem on a nightly basis.
Finally, Painter does bring in a trio of top-150 3-star prospects, Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter Jr. and Emmanuel Dowuona, who will all be thrown right into the fire from day 1. Given what this team needs this year, Hunter is my bet to make the biggest impact in his inaugural season. He's an effortless scorer who can get buckets in bunches (all-time leading scorer in Indiana's Marion County in high school), and his picturesque lefty shooting stroke should be an invaluable weapon to help space the floor for Edwards.
Bottom Line: Purdue was lethal last year playing inside-out through the post always surrounding Haas with a bevy of long-range snipers. With Cline and Edwards as the only returning threats from behind the arc, the Boilers will likely have to score efficiently through other avenues. With a trio of hyperactive rebounders in Boudreaux, Eastern and Eifert, look for Painter to routinely send multiple bodies to the offensive glass to generate some 2nd and 3rd shot scoring. While this could be at the expense of Painter's longstanding commitment to transition defense, getting a few extra possessions and easy buckets at the rim may be necessary.
There's a relatively large number of unknowns on this roster, but there's enough optionality in both the true freshman and redshirt freshman class for Painter to fill in the gaps. Expect Boudreaux and Eastern to become household names around the Big Ten by next March, which will give the Boilers a stout 5-man core of Edwards, Cline, Eastern, Boudreaux and Haarms.