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Looking ahead: Purdue Boilermakers

It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today the Purdue Boilermakers.

Reserved and slightly uncomfortable in the spotlight early in his career, A.J. Hammons announced his decision to return for his senior year at halftime of the Purdue Boilermakers’ spring football game. After the school’s Hall of Fame inductions were announced, there was Hammons, microphone in hand, standing in the end zone.

"I just want to say it’s been a great three years," he said, pausing dramatically, "and I’m coming back for my fourth."

If Hammons plans to seize the court as well as he did the moment, count Purdue among the top teams in the Big Ten next year.

That used to be a fairly common prediction for the Boilermakers. It’s not that they had disappeared from the basketball landscape recently. They were there, lurking in the background, but they didn’t command the attention they once had.

This past season signaled a shift of approaching, if not rounding, the corner. Purdue made its first NCAA tournament appearance in three years, finished 22-12 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten. But it didn’t come without bumps and bruises.

The Boilermakers struggled with consistency midseason -- losing five of seven in late December/early January -- and not surprisingly, so, too, did Hammons in that stretch. When he found his footing, so did Purdue, winning nine of its last 12.

That’s what makes Hammons’ decision to return so critical. With him on the court, plus six of the top seven scorers from a year ago, coach Matt Painter has arguably his deepest roster in years.

This isn’t merely a team approaching the corner; it’s one about to barrel around it -- a certain top-25 program, a potential top-10 team ready to command our attention yet again.

What the immediate future holds: And the lineup could become uber loaded.

Last week, ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman reported that Caleb Swanigan, the No. 9 recruit in the country per ESPN, has decommitted from Michigan State and could wind up with the Boilermakers.

Could is the operative phrase, as Swanigan already has changed direction more than once -- a sure thing headed for Cal became a Michigan State pledge and now once again is on the open market. Kentucky, too, is reportedly interested.

But if Swanigan, whose guardian Roosevelt Barnes played football at Purdue, does head to West Lafayette, the already optimistic expectations for Purdue could reach another stratosphere.

At 6-foot-8, Swanigan would be the perfect complement to Hammons and 7-2 Isaac Haas, who showed plenty of promise in his freshman year. Reportedly Swanigan likes Purdue because he knows he’d play the 4 there, as opposed to the 5 at Michigan State.

It would be more than a formidable frontcourt.

It would not be the only place where Painter has depth.

He also has plenty of outside shooters in Kendall Stephens, Dakota Mathias and incoming freshman Ryan Cline, considered one of the best pure shooters in his class.

He’s got two versatile forwards in Vince Edwards and Basil Smotherman (who also has a top-50 surname) and Jacquil Taylor, who missed the bulk of last season with an injury.

And he has guard Rapheal Davis, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, who upped his production in virtually every statistical category -- from averaging six points as a sophomore to 10.7 as a junior, 3.7 rebounds to 4.4, 1.3 assists to 2.6 and 18 minutes per game to an indispensable 31.

The only real question mark had been at point guard, but just this past weekend, Painter helped solve that riddle, too. A year after Jon Octeus, a graduate transfer from Colorado State, worked out wonderfully for the Boilermakers, Painter has gone the same route for instant results. Johnny Hill, a graduate transfer from Texas-Arlington, will join Purdue this year and be eligible to play immediately. Hill averaged 10.1 points and 3.6 assists this season despite being limited by a wrist injury.

Hill will join rising sophomore P.J. Thompson and incoming freshman Grant Weatherford at the point, giving Painter both depth and options.

So the only remaining question is Swanigan. Regardless of his answer, the general theme remains the same for the Boilermakers: this is a team ready for the spotlight.