Inside look at Purdue's Scout Team: "We take great pride in it"

On3 imageby:Mike Carmin02/17/24
GoldandBlack.com Saturday Simulcast: Feb. 17, 2024

About 30 minutes before the start of practice, a group of Purdue players – a mix of walk-ons and scholarship players – make their way to Cardinal Court.

They’re led by one of two assistant coaches – Paul Lusk or Terry Johnson, depending on which one has the scout for the upcoming opponent – to the practice court area.

They quickly digest plays that are somewhat foreign, and Lusk and Johnson use terminology that these players are familiar with. They don’t have to know everything, but just enough to give the first and second-team players a solid look.

They run through sets and go over a handful of out-of-bounds plays that will be run during the upcoming practice session. They leave Cardinal Court, walk into Purdue’s renovated locker room, sit down in the team film room and watch the same plays they just practiced. And it’s their job to replicate those schemes and concepts once practice starts.

It’s a situation that usually starts two days before tipoff. For Sunday’s game at Ohio State (1 p.m. CBS), the process started Friday. For this week’s game against Rutgers, it begins Tuesday. You get the picture.

This is life as a scout team member for the second-ranked Boilermakers, who are riding a nine-game winning streak going to Columbus and face the struggling Buckeyes.  

“They’re amazing. They’re huge,” senior Mason Gillis said.

This isn’t a glamour job, and each player must leave their personal goals in the locker room. This isn’t about the scout team players showing up the starters. It’s about preparing them for the next game.

The only time fans see Carson Barrett, Chase Martin, Will Berg, Brian Waddell, Sam King, Jace Rayl, and Josh Furst when they’re not sitting on the bench is at the end of blowouts. But their work is done behind the scenes, and it’s appreciated.

“Best scout team in America,” said center Zach Edey, reigning National Player of the Year expressed earlier this season.

Edey is biased, but he should be. Will Berg is the only Boilermaker who can nearly look Edey in the eye, but he must push and challenge the All-America at every opportunity. Not for himself, but to help the 7-foot-4 Edey who will leave Purdue as one of the top players in program history.

“When I go home and I see it on Twitter, that makes me feel really good,” Barrett said of Edey’s comments. “It makes me feel like I’m making a difference in the program.”

You won’t get an argument from Martin.

“I definitely agree with that,” Martin said. “We give them a great look. Coming from a guy like that, national player of the year, and seen a lot of basketball, it means a lot.”

The fact that coach Matt Painter has a scout team isn’t breaking news.

Every program uses players, whether they’re backups or walk-ons, to practice against the starters. Purdue enhanced the organization and attention to detail last season, and it’s risen to a new level where preparation time is just as important as what happens on the court.

“It is different compared to other years,” said Barrett, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship for the second semester. “Our freshman and sophomore years, we didn’t do much of it. Chase and I proved we can do a little bit more in practice and replicate what they’re going to be seeing in a game. They’ve given us more of an opportunity to do that. We take great pride in it.”

Pride is a popular word among scout team members, knowing they are key components in pushing this team – and the program – to reach new heights.

Whether it’s a marquee nonconference victory, another Big Ten regular-season championship, a conference tournament title, or a deep run in the NCAA tournament, there’s plenty of fulfillment in watching how game day unfolds.

“It’s definitely helping our guys win games, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters,” Martin said. “It doesn’t matter whether I get in the game, or I don’t play … I know I contributed because I helped these guys prepare for it.

“As long as I contribute to helping these guys win and helping our team win as a whole, that’s the good I get out of it. Whenever these guys do their jobs and we get in, we have a lot of fun. These last two years, you get a lot more confidence playing in these situations.”

“THEY’RE UNSELFISH”

The mission is simple for the scout team.

“Their goal is to run the other team’s stuff better than what they run it in a game,” Johnson said. “To give our guys the best look possible, and hopefully, it slows it down before they get in the game.”

The fact there are scholarship players on the scout team is what makes Purdue’s situation unique. Usually, it’s a group of walk-ons, but the scholarship players give the process more credibility and challenge the players who see the most minutes.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a walk-on or on scholarship, Lusk said the commitment must be 100%.

“Those guys have to have tremendous buy-in,” Lusk said. “They’re unselfish, they’re about the team, they’re about getting the guys ready. You don’t see them get in or get the minutes, but they’re a big part of the preparation. That’s a really cool thing. They know how valued they are.”

It doesn’t mean, though, that the scout players don’t enjoy getting the best of the starters. Hitting a long 3-pointer. Driving to the basket and dunking. Getting a steal off a pass. Playing strong in the post to thwart a scoring opportunity.

That can lead to intense competition all in the name of making sure the top players are ready, regardless of who Purdue is playing.

“What happens is when they score against the guys, they talk sometimes but if they don’t, I like talking for them,” Johnson said. “That gets our guys upset and they play a little harder to stop it.”

Senior Ethan Morton enjoys the banter back and forth, saying it creates a better atmosphere when it’s a two-way street at practice and the scout team has success along with the regular group.

It helps keep practices lively, especially later in the season when the normal routine can become mundane.

“You get to that point where it’s good to have some fire and be able to compete between games with them,” Morton said. “They always make it fun, and they always let us know if they’re busting our butts a little bit. It’s a good challenge for us.”

The bottom line is Morton and the regulars are seeing a realistic version of what’s coming in the game.

“Honestly, sometimes, and this isn’t a knock on other teams as much as it is a compliment to our guys,” Morton said. “I think sometimes the pace they’re going at in practice is the same in the game or even faster than the game. If that’s a team’s calling card, they’ll be going at a frantic pace and they’re able to lock in with their actions.

“They don’t pull punches. ‘Oh, scout team – you don’t want to score on the starters, and then everyone will be pissed off at you.’ That’s not the case. They want to come in and compete with us every day.”

EMBRACING THE ROLE

Waddell didn’t envision his role this season would include the scout team. He planned on competing for playing time and being involved in the regular rotation, contributing steady minutes.

It hasn’t panned out, forcing Waddell to readjust his mindset. A conversation with Lusk painted a clear picture of his situation and what was needed to buy into his new role.

“After the first few weeks, I went up to talk to coach Lusk and asked, ‘What do I have to do to keep playing, maybe get back on that first or second team?’ ” Waddell said. “Playing on the scout team wasn’t something I was used to. He told me my body language hasn’t been good enough to show that I’m mature enough to be a part of those groups.

“That made me realize that I need to embrace the role that I’m in, no matter what that is – scout team, first team, second team and do it to the best of my ability. I’ll get better because of it.”

That type of attitude is one reason why this year’s scout team works. Egos aren’t welcome when it’s your job to make your teammates better.

“Part of it is having the buy-in from Will and Brian,” Morton said. “We’ve never had, at least since I’ve been here, never had a couple of guys on scholarship be on scout team. That takes a lot of sacrifice and mental fortitude. Kudos to them.”

Throw in the experience of Barrett and Martin and the knowledge they’ve amassed during their careers, there’s an understanding of what’s needed and when.

“It’s the whole group and their buy-in and the coaches do a great job of using them the best way possible,” Morton added. “They’re unbelievable. I don’t think anybody in the country has access to something like this.”

The experience for Waddell has offered reassurance about his talent and skill level, even though he’s not running Purdue’s system. He struggled with confidence during his first two seasons, but playing on the scout team has allowed Waddell to feature different elements of his game.

And Waddell has become a leader in his newfound role.

“I look forward to it now being able to go to practice and play offense and defense against those guys and be a leader on the scout team, something I haven’t been since high school,” he said. “It’s nice to bring everyone together and tell everyone what I see.”

I WANT TO BE …

Martin enjoyed playing the role of Northwestern’s Boo Buie and any guard who is isolated in ball screens. Waddell was Arizona’s Caleb Love.

“That was probably my favorite week of practice at Purdue,” Waddell said.

Barrett played the role of Alabama’s Aaron Estrada. He was looking forward to being Ohio State’s Jamison Battle ahead of Sunday’s game. The benefit for Barrett – he’s left-handed.

“A wing who’s a chucker – he takes a lot of shots,” Barrett said of Battle.

Lusk and Johnson try to match their opponents’ skills with those on the scout team. The lobbying starts near the beginning of practice, but it’s no secret everyone wants to be the shooter.

“Scout team guys start getting mad, ‘I want to be Boo Buie,’ ” Johnson said. “They want to be the guy that shoots the ball all the time. I’m not going to yell at you for shooting the ball.”

The rewards are numerous for the scout team.

They’ve had a front-row seat to one of the best seasons in program history, earning the No. 1 ranking again, and celebrated a Big Ten regular-season title and a conference tournament championship last season. They have rings.

They see the actions the opponents are running and know where the ball is going even before they do. When the Boilermakers defend the play, leading to a missed shot or a turnover, they smile, knowing they did their job.

The satisfaction is about as real as it gets.

“We got them ready for this, and we got them ready for that and we had something to do with it,” Waddell said. “If we scored on them in practice, a part of us can say we helped them get ready for that.”

The other part of the reward is playing at the end of lopsided victories. The minutes are limited, but the end of the game mop-up duties have seen Berg connected on an alley-oop dunk, Waddell’s slam against Michigan, Barrett hitting a 3-pointer, and Martin scoring against Texas Southern.

But in the end, it’s all about winning.  

“I guess the reward is if one of us gets a bucket, Will Berg gets a dunk or someone hits a 3, that’s pretty awesome,” Barrett said. “But our pizza after our games tastes better when we win.”

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