CHICAGO — Matt Painter sat at Big Ten media day and was asked about the past season gone askew. Anyone looking for wishy-washy had come to the wrong table.
This is no time to be meek, and no time to be mute. The fascinating question about Purdue this season? How the Boilermakers — the young and the old — respond to being publicly called out by their coach.
Because they certainly have been.
“A lot of people care about Purdue basketball. I take that personal,” Painter said. “There were a lot of years of Purdue basketball before Coach (Gene) Keady, but to me, that’s all that I’ve known. We might have struggled at times with him. We might have struggled with me in certain areas. But we always played hard, and we always laid it on the line. So when we got away from that, to me, that’s our biggest challenge.”
Atonement. Eventually, every program needs it. Bad memories must be power-washed. But this is different for the Boilermakers and cuts closer to the bone. It was not just the 16-18 record last season that tormented Painter, who had averaged 25 wins the previous six years. It was a wrong turn in Purdue’s basketball passion.
He was plain enough last March, standing in a hallway in the United Center, questioning his team’s year-round commitment after the Boilermakers were whisk-broomed from the Big Ten tournament by Nebraska.
And he is plain enough now.
“There is an eagerness and excitement to get back on track, to fight for what is ours,” he said. “I told our guys we had an identity crisis. It says ‘play hard’ on our shorts, but we haven’t been playing hard. It’s false advertising.”
Lately, Painter has pulled fewer punches than Mike Tyson.
“You want to stick by your guys,” he said. “But your leadership and your words have to be put into action. There has to be a commitment past what the coach tells you to do, if you want to be successful at a high level. I just don’t think we had the guys who were doing that.”
The early returns have been promising, but not always. It was leading scorer Terone Johnson who mentioned that “I felt like last year we had a lot of players that weren’t taking it seriously enough as far as in the offseason getting better. We just want to get back to the Purdue culture.”
Fine. But then what about A.J. Hammons missing early games for conduct unbecoming a Boilermaker. Has he gotten the message yet, or not?
“That question’s really for him, not me,” Painter said. “A lot of times what happens in our business, when you deal with young people, is you get a lot of lip service. They learn to say the right things. Will they do the right things?
“He’s got to be able to now show action.”
So there it is for Purdue. Some things must be improved and others proven. Meanwhile, Painter might be using coaching muscles he had not needed before. This challenge goes to the very heart of his trade, so permit him a coaching soliloquy.
“You’re trying to get them to do certain things, where some of them don’t quite understand the attention to detail that you have to have; a lot of little things that add up to a big win. I thought our attention to detail wasn’t great, and I also thought we just had guys who weren’t demanding enough of themselves.
“You get guys who do what they’re supposed to do off the court, and they’re talented? It always helps on the court. Always. I’ve never seen it where (being undisciplined) stays off the court. I’ve never seen that. It always trickles on the court.
“There weren’t major things, but little things. A guy’s 10 minutes late for the bus, a guy forgets his practice jersey to a shoot-around, a guy forgets his game jersey, a guy forgets to bring his shoes to the game. Those were four separate incidents, four different games. We went seven years and it didn’t happen once. It kind of showed where we were.
“Hopefully, we’ve learned from that.”
Anyway, he’s anxious to find out.