Sports Journalism Blog

By Madie Chandler | @madie_chandler

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS — Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer arrived at Purdue University in September, 2022 to find themselves inside a crater-sized roster hole with shovels and instructions to start digging. The departure of All-American guard Jaden Ivey to the National Basketball Association left a sizeable gap in the Boilermakers’ roster, and Smith and Loyer were the anointed clean-up crew at the guard spot.

Upon their arrival, 247 Sports ranked Smith and Loyer as the 195th and 119th best prospects of their class, respectively. They weren’t overly athletic or flashy, but they played a fundamental brand of basketball, the kind that flourishes in high school gyms across Indiana. Loyer had a textbook jump shot, and Smith’s passing moved even the most mountainous of defenses.

Purdue coach Matt Painter saw these qualities, along with their desire to win, and got to work on the recruiting trail. He was drawn to their thorough understanding of the game above and beyond any depiction of their abilities on recruiting site rankings.

“Rankings is athleticism,” Painter explained. “It’s what it is when it gets down to it. These guys aren’t ranked high because they weren’t, you know, extreme athletes.”

Purdue’s convincing 92-84 victory over No. 1 Arizona on Saturday, positioning the Boilermakers to return to the top spot in the polls, was built upon the talent and intensity of two sophomore guards who represent the evolution of Painter’s recruiting philosophy. Loyer scored a career-high 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-9 from 3-point range, with three assists and four steals. Smith scored 26 on 9-of-15 shooting, 4-of-7 behind the line, and three steals.

In the din of Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the victory was Purdue’s third in 22 games against top-ranked teams, the first since the Boilermakers defeated Arizona 72-69 in the year-old building then known as Conseco Fieldhouse on November 25, 2000.

It seemed fitting that when Painter tied Lou Henson of Illinois with 423 victories, fourth in Big Ten history, the sophomore guards and their collective commitment to winning became a decisive factor.

“About 10 years ago, I had no one to talk to during the game,” Painter said. “I was talking, they weren’t listening.” He went on to add, “You’ve got to have a back and forth, and when you have intelligent players you get to talk to them back and forth because they are going to feel some things and see some things out there that you’re not as a coach. They just are. And when you can have that, now you can really grow as a group.”

The growth, led by consensus national player of the year Zach Edey, came quickly and unexpectedly at first. Purdue’s 2022 season shocked fans as the Boilermakers rose up the rankings, spending seven weeks of the season at the number one spot, all while starting the two freshman guards, Smith and Loyer.

Smith’s combination of skill as a heady player in the pick-and-roll with a smooth shooting stroke made him the perfect partner for the emerging big man, Edey, the 7-foot-4, 300-pound center. A sharpshooting perimeter player like Loyer added gasoline to the fiery Purdue offense, earning the Boilermakers the number one seed in the East region of the NCAA tournament.

But for just the second time since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a 16th seed defeated the top seed as Fairleigh Dickinson allowed Purdue just 58 points in their first round meeting last March. The Boilermakers connected on only five of their 26 3-point attempts, an abysmal 19 percent. Smith made just two of his 10 field goals and committed a costly seven turnovers. Loyer’s night was better only marginally. He made four of his 10 shots and committed three turnovers.

The lights had gone out on the bright-future Purdue backcourt, and the status of Edey was in question as the newly-crowned National Player of the Year weighed a decision to declare for the NBA Draft. The Boilermakers might have squandered their best opportunity at a national title.

“Obviously five of 26 isn’t what we expected. It’s not what we’ve worked for. It’s not a product of the work we’ve put in,” Loyer said after the loss to Fairleigh Dickinson.

And with that, Purdue returned to West Lafayette, dormant but not inactive, until the 2023 season.

The 2023 Boilermakers returned with a sharpened edge, and with Edey. There’s a jaded facet of the attitude this team brings to the court, a chip-on-your-shoulder grit that’s driving winning basketball in West Lafayette. And who better to lead this charge of growth but Smith and Loyer?

The sting of defeat from the first round of the NCAA tournament is manifesting itself as renewed energy that powers the Boilermaker guard tandem to win at all costs. Through 11 games this season, Smith is averaging four more points and two more assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. He’s improved his 3-point percentage by an outstanding 10% — up to 47 percent from 37 percent one season ago. All of this while attempting almost four more field goals per game.

Loyer’s efficiency is also up, his field goal percentage improved by 5%. He has also brought a new urgency to the defensive end by using his awareness to anticipate passes and jump passing lanes resulting in Purdue fastbreaks. Loyer’s game-high four steals against the Wildcats became the latest example.

Arizona’s Oumar Ballo, a 7-foot senior, made post-play difficult for Edey, and the defensive attention from the Wildcats caused four total turnovers by Purdue’s big man. Despite an arrhythmic first half from Edey, Smith and Loyer combined for 32 points on 13 of 19 shooting to give the Boilermakers a 49-38 lead at the half.

The pair of sophomore guards was delivering in a top-five matchup while their star big man struggled to find his groove.

This wasn’t an arrival or a coming-out party; Smith and Loyer had already achieved that a year ago. This was a statement, a rebuttal, a response to the too-loud criticism of two young guards in the most-anticipated matchup of college basketball’s season thus far.

And it was only halftime.

The pair went on to combine for 53 points on 20 of 33 shooting, making nine of their 16 3-point attempts. Loyer’s 27 points resulted from just 18 shots and no free throws. He made an impressive 56% percent from beyond the arc. The coordinated attack on the offensive end led into aggressive defense. Smith and Loyer collected a combined seven steals. When Edey scored 13 of his 22 points in the second half, the Boilermakers had three players scoring 22 points for the first time in school history.

“What they do well is they win,” Arizona head coach Tommy Lloyd said of Smith and Loyer following the game. “Those kids are really good basketball players.”

The young guard pairing continues to grow as the Boilermakers prepare to resume conference play in the new year. Already notching wins over Xavier, Gonzaga, Tennessee, Marquette, Alabama, and now handing Arizona its first loss on the year, Purdue appears poised to play for another Big Ten title, thanks in large part to the emergence of Smith and Loyer.

They haven’t stopped hearing the echoes after Fairleigh Dickinson, however.

Loyer posted, “The silence can be deafening” on his X/Twitter account following his dominant play against Arizona.

They’re listening.

And they’re answering. They’re stamping each statement victory with a resounding, “We’re here.”

It isn’t just Edey anymore. Smith and Loyer have arrived, and they’re only just getting started.