Saturday, December 4, 2021

Unique player looks to lead Purdue

Senior forward Andre Hutson falls back to earth after dunking over Purdue forward Rodney Smith during last year —

Talking about a Gene Keady-led Purdue team in the preseason is virtually worthless.

Coming into each new season, the Boilermakers seem destined for the middle of the Big Ten pack. But by the end of the season, Keady and the Boilermakers usually find themselves near the top.

Now in his 18th season as head coach of Purdue, Keady has to give another great coaching effort to put the Boilermakers back in the NCAA tournament, where it made the Elite Eight in 2000.

Purdue returns only one player who has averaged more than six points per game - 6-foot-1guard Carson Cunningham averaged 11 points last year.

Last year, Purdue boasted five seniors as the team’s core. Led by Brian Cardinal, Greg McQuay, Jaraan Cornell and Mike Robinson, the group accounted for 48 points a game.

But as evidenced by its 72-69 win over Arizona on Nov. 25, this team has some talent, too.

Purdue is 2-2 in its first four games, and 6-foot-6 forward Rodney Smith has emerged as the team’s top scoring threat, averaging 14.3 points a game.

Smith said this team wants to find its own personality.

“We’re not trying to replace those guys,” Smith said. “It’s different without Brian (Cardinal) around, we miss his energy and intensity.”

Keady himself isn’t sure how this club will replace the production of its departed seniors.

“Scoring will be the hardest to come by,” Keady said. “But if we just get better, I’ll be happy. We’re not worried about anybody else but ourselves.”

In Cunningham, the Boilermakers have a unique leader. The Oregon State transfer, who averaged 4.1 assists last year, is a member of Purdue’s Chess Club and a history buff.

“Saying Carson beats to a different drummer would be an understatement,” Keady said with a laugh. “But he’s been fun, and he understands how to play.”

Cunningham, who compares Keady to former president Teddy Roosevelt, said he isn’t worried about the team’s scoring void.

“Scoring will shake itself out in the games,” Cunningham said. “My job is to set people up, and I don’t think there will be a problem.”

Cunningham added that the departed seniors paved the way for the current squad.

“A great example was left,” he said. “It’s easier to continue that when it has already been done.

In the first four contests, 6-foot-10 center John Allison has given the team a solid post presence. Allison is averaging 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.

Guard Kenny Lowe is the team’s third player averaging double digits, with 10.3 points a game.

Purdue has five remaining non-conference games, including a Dec. 30 matchup in West Lafayette, Ind., with UCLA. The team begins the conference season on Jan. 3 versus Michigan at home.

Keady’s team hasn’t gelled yet, but betting against them could be a bad idea. At this point, though, the veteran coach isn’t very confident.

“If I scouted a junior high team I’d probably think they would beat us,” Keady said.

Check back with him at the end of the season.

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