Young Purdue team must learn on fly, faces Liberty first

NCAA Men's Basketball

Purdue coach Matt Painter is excited about the Boilermakers’ potentialheading into the season.

As Purdue begins its quest for its 25th Big Ten Championship on Wednesday against Liberty at the Space Coast Challenge in Melbourne, Fla., Painter will be looking to bring along a young roster that includes seven scholarship freshmen and sophomores.

The lack of experience has Purdue not in the preseason AP Top 25 for the first time since the start of the 2014-15 season.

“For us it’s going to be with our young guys and really anybody, it’s like working through the early mistakes and being able to allow those early mistakes to be lessened instead of a pattern,” Painter said.

Purdue returns three starters — junior forward Trevion Williams, junior guard Sasha Stefanovic and junior point guard Eric Hunter Jr. – from a team that went 16-15 last season. The Boilermakers lost a pair of starters who transferred, as center Matt Haarms went to BYU and forward Nojel Eastern to Howard.

The 6-foot-10, 265-pound Williams posted eight double-doubles last season and will be counted on again for production inside after leading the Boilermakers in scoring and rebounding (11.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) last season.

“We’re going to put the ball in his hands a lot, and we’re going to put it at different places,” Painter said. “At times he’s going to facilitate for us. He’s always been that way, whether we throw it to him in the low post or the high point, he’s always been a really good passer.”

Purdue will be without one of its returning starters for the season opener as Hunter suffered a broken leg during a preseason scrimmage. Hunter will likely be sidelined at least another month. With Hunter out, sophomore Isaiah Thompson and freshman Jaden Ivey will run the point.

“Injuries are part of the game, and we’ve been very fortunate through the years here we haven’t had a lot of injuries, especially to significant guys,” Painter said. “So it’s part of it — the next guy has got to step up and play well and be productive.”

Liberty returns three starters from a team that finished 30-4 last season and finished second in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 53.8 points per game.

The Flames are led by junior guard Darius McGhee (9.5 ppg, 1.7 apg), who was named to the preseason All-Atlantic Sun Conference first team. Another Liberty returning starter, 6-foot-4 guard Elijah Cuffee, was named A-Sun preseason defensive player of the year.

Under coach Ritchie McKay, who is 154-87 in two different stints covering seven seasons as coach at Liberty, the Flames play a smothering, pack-line defense and methodical pace offensively.

“The way they play, they have a slow pace, they are the second best by the numbers defensive numbers in country,” Painter said. “We’re going to have to have some discipline in structure in what we are doing.”

–Field Level Media

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