WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue men's basketball coach Matt Painter watched his team get closer off the court and better on it in Italy this summer.
He knows it's a progression that must continue through the winter if the Boilermakers are going to live up to their own expectations.
With nine freshmen and sophomores on this season's roster, Painter understands it's going to take time to get everybody on the same page -- he just hopes it happens quickly.
"I think there are a lot of good pieces here," he said during Monday's annual media day. "I feel like we can be a really good team, I just don't know when."
Changes were bound to take place when the last of the original "Baby Boilers," Robbie Hummel, finally ran out of eligibility after last season. Hummel headed to Europe to play pro ball.
The Boilermakers followed Hummel's lead this summer, taking advantage of a well-timed overseas trip to give the youngsters a jump start on helping this young team rewrite history the same way Hummel's group did in 2007-08. Back then, with four freshmen starters, the Boilermakers went 25-9 and shocked everyone with a second-place finish in the Big Ten.
Then, as now, outsiders spent most of the offseason writing off Purdue's chances as a title contender.
Under Painter, though, the Boilermakers have grown so accustomed to that title, they're not ready to let it go.
"I think we learned how to compete while we were there," senior swingman D.J. Byrd said. "We played hard and we competed well."
It's a perfect fit for the image Painter wants in this gritty, blue-collar program.
The Boilermakers must do more than compete if they want to beat the Big Ten's big boys.
And they have a mix that could give other teams all kinds of problems.
With six players listed at 6-foot-8 or taller, Painter expects this to be a much stronger rebounding team than last season's unit when the Boilers finished 22-13 and came within a whisker of ousting Kansas in the regional finals.
Painter also spent much of the offseason preaching better defense, a component that was lacking from Purdue's resume last season.
"Why do I think we'll be better defensively? Because our team last year was awful defensively," he said, drawing laughter. "We have to be better. I think the holes that came out were against really good teams, and I just think we'll have more size along the front line to help us with rebounding."
What else is different?
The Boilermakers have a potential gold mine of young talent.
Freshman Ronnie Johnson is likely to start at point guard after easily outplaying his competition in practice. A.J. Hammons, a 7-foot center, has impressed the coaches with his shot blocking ability and scoring punch, redshirt freshman Donnie Hale has opened eyes now that he's in better shape than he was a year ago and freshman guard Raphael Davis (57 points) led the Boilermakers in scoring on their European trip.
Each is likely to get a chance to prove they can play early.
"I'd say we've got a lot of young guys, but we're in position to make big strides and make big strides fast," sophomore guard Anthony Johnson said after sitting out Monday's practice with a sore foot that could keep him out a couple more days. "I think people outside may see us as a team lacking this year."
That's not what the Boilermakers saw in Italy this summer, though, and that's not what they believe fans will see in the season-opener Nov. 9 against Bucknell.
"We got real family with each other, who to go to on the drive, who needs help on defense, things like that," junior guard Terone Johnson said. "We got into the flow of things and that should help us down the line."