A freshmen quartet is guiding Purdue to a surprise season in the Big Ten gauntlet

During Matt Painter’s third year in West Lafayette, Purdue’s young, promising core raced out to a 12-1 start in Big Ten play.

Still adjusting to life after program icon Gene Keady, the freshmen trio of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel donned the title of “Baby Boilers.” The young Boilermaker squad started the year off the map before climbing into the Top 25 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament second round, setting the stage for a multi-year run.

BRACKETOLOGY: Purdue on 6-line
—Boilers in Top 25: Harkins — 22 | Rauf — 24
SUBSCRIBE to today!

Thirteen years later, Painter has found himself in a similar situation with the ’20-21 Boilers.

Purdue sits comfortably at 12-6 and 7-4 in the Big Ten as of Monday, climbing into the AP Top 25 at No. 24 for the first time this season. Though no one would claim this team is free of imperfections, the Boilermakers are certainly ahead of schedule.

Given the overall depth in this year’s Big Ten, winning seven of 11 — especially with zero scholarship seniors — is an impressive feat. Purdue has already swept No. 7 Ohio State and its nine victories vs. Quad 1/2 opponents is the second-most in the country. Meanwhile, the Boilers are a No. 6 seed in our bracketologist Lukas Harkins’ latest bracket.

Not bad for a team picked ninth in the Big Ten preseason poll, right?

The driving force behind Purdue’s upstart season is its young nucleus. Junior big man Trevion Williams has assumed a lead role as a go-to scorer (game-winner vs. Michigan State; 2nd in usage rate nationally), elite rebounder (leads nation in offensive rebounding percentage), and post distributor (2.2 assists per game). His development into one of the sport’s best frontcourt players has taken the pressure off the young guns when they have hiccups.

Nine Boilers are averaging at least 14 minutes per game this year. Four of them make up the freshmen rotational contributors in Brandon Newman, Zach Edey, Jaden Ivey and Mason Gillis, each of whom have won Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors this season, breaking the conference record.

What makes Purdue special this season — besides the fact it is so young and promising — is the team’s depth. The Boilers aren’t going to fall flat just because one or two players are experiencing an off night.

Purdue dug out of a 14-point deficit against Minnesota despite Ivey going 3-9 from the field and Edey logging just seven minutes due to foul trouble. Why? Newman exploded for 29 points while Eric Hunter dished out seven assists and locked up Gophers star Marcus Carr.

Against Ohio State on Jan. 19, the Boilers again trailed by double digits early but climbed back. This time, Ivey had 15 off the bench and the game-winning basket while Mason Gillis and Newman were held scoreless.

The freshmen quartet seemingly take turns at having breakout games while veterans like Williams, Hunter and sharpshooter Sasha Stefanovic set the tone.

Each of the freshmen have had their moments, but Newman is enjoying one of the best Year 1s in all of college basketball.

The table below displays the nation’s seven freshmen who are averaging at least 10 points per game with BPM (box plus/minus) ratings of at least 3.0 on both offense and defense, which includes Newman.

Newman in elite company with star freshmen

Source: Sports-Reference

This is remarkably strong company for Newman, listed alongside some of the most productive freshmen in the nation despite being the only 3-star recruit above. While Newman won’t go for 29 every night like he did against Minnesota, his productivity on both ends has Purdue in good hands.

As for the other freshmen, Ivey is a star in the making as an off-ball guard who can create on offense and plays with his heart on his shoulder. Ivey held back tears during the postgame presser after he beat Ohio State, explaining the emotional ups and downs during the first months of his career. He has finished in double figures in three of his last five appearances and had two blocks against Minnesota.

Center Zach Edey is the latest in the long line of Purdue seven-footers. Edey is still raw at 7-4/285 like Matt Haarms, Isaac Haas and AJ Hammons were as underclassmen. The Toronto native has already proven to be a force, though, as smaller teams are unable to keep his mammoth frame outside of the low block.

Forward Mason Gillis has had breakout moments as well, particularly through his effort on the offensive boards, where Purdue ranks 44th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. According to Hoop-Math, 11 of Gillis’ 32 field goals this season have come via putbacks, which helps mightily alongside the nation’s best offensive rebounder in Williams. When perimeter shots aren’t falling, the Boilermakers can count on Gillis and Williams to add second-chance points to keep the offense humming.

Again, this team still has its flaws that likely caps its overall ceiling. Purdue isn’t necessarily elite on either end of the floor, and while the 3-point shooting is better than last season, it’s still fairly inconsistent. Defensively, Boiler opponents also shoot 46.1 percent of their field-goal attempts from 3-point range and don’t turn the ball over much, which could be problematic against teams that can go on quick scoring runs like Michigan, Illinois and Iowa.

Overall, though, it’s hard not to be impressed by Purdue through 18 games. The Big Ten has rarely, if ever, been as deep as it is this season and Painter’s youngest team ever — which is still dealing with the distractions of COVID-19 like everyone else — is hardly missing a beat. The Boilermakers are significantly ahead of schedule and it’s a scary sight for the rest of the Big Ten.

Eli Boettger
Eli Boettger

Heat Check CBB founder, editor