The summer’s second practice is roughly 35 minutes away when Eric Hunter Jr. leaves the floor, grabs a disposable cup, fills it and deposits his rather sweaty self on a folding chair along the wall. The Purdue senior has been at it for a while. Drills officially kick off at 2 p.m. but his pre-workout workout with junior Isaiah Thompson started well before 1, as it had for freshman Caleb Furst, who’s going through big man paces on the north rim. Other Boilermakers came and went in the morning. It’s not extracurricular activity, exactly. There’s nothing extra about multiple gym visits this time of year. “Extra” is the coin of the college hoops realm. Nothing unusual.
But of course it’s absolutely unusual, for a couple reasons.
One is that Hunter can remember a time when Thompson, his workout partner, was basically a total stranger. This time was last summer. Because, unfortunately, they were not roommates during a pandemic, and therefore were not in the same workout pods. “Barely saw him,” Hunter says, nodding at Thompson, who’s sitting on a chair a few steps away. “We would go out that way and come in this door. No contact at all. It’s crazy.”
There’s another reason the whole scene lands a little differently, though far more agreeably so: Lots of people expect a lot from Purdue men’s basketball starting roughly five months from this moment. Various outlets, including The Athletic, consider this group worthy of a spot in early preseason top 10s. Which suggests a Big Ten championship is plausible. Maybe a deep NCAA Tournament run. And dare anyone dream of the first Final Four in 40-plus years? The backdrop to an otherwise ordinary Wednesday is saturated with expectation. So pre-practice shots have a little more weight. Finishes against air are more profound. Every minute in here, from now until November, is spent in service of doing something big.
Assessing how well all of it will go in mid-June is a little hasty, yes, but not entirely impractical. The better teams of the Matt Painter era have benefitted from a nice blend of old hands and young talent. This group has that. Those teams, collectively, also worked almost to the point of overkill. This group, so far, is doing that. And those teams imagined themselves doing the big things but understood optimism doesn’t put the ball in the bucket, and, well, that’s where last spring’s results come in handy. “Honestly, we haven’t won anything yet,” senior wing Sasha Stefanovic says. “We haven’t done anything. It’s cool to have national recognition and everything. But we lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. We expect ourselves to be better than that.”
These summer months, then, are about the granular process of exiting the traffic circle of good enough and heading down the road to something more. Purdue was totally fine in 2020-21: 18 wins, fourth place in the Big Ten, a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, top 35 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. Every important piece might return, pending Trevion Williams’ NBA Draft decision. Hence the preseason love. Purdue also was not totally fine taking care of the ball (159th nationally in turnover rate) or staying in front of the opposition and causing chaos defensively (295th in defensive turnover rate), and all those important pieces were responsible for those shortcomings. Hence the edginess in the room. Everyone expects the Boilermakers to improve. So that means they actually have to improve, particularly in a couple key areas.