Last year Purdue closed the pre-NCAA Tournament season with wins against hapless Illinois and Penn State, and losses against the much stronger Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. This year has been different. Purdue has proven themselves a stronger closer this year, having defeated Maryland, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan heading into this afternoon's championship finale against Michigan State.
Despite the loss, the fact that this team appears to be rolling at the just the right time is incredibly encouraging. The inside-out offense that Matt Painter has worked so hard to instill in this team has finally materialized in a very real and consistent manner. There's a lot to look forward to with the NCAA Tournament starting next week.
The perfect bow on the pre-NCAA Tournament season would of course have been a victory over Michigan State to claim Purdue's 2nd B1G Tournament title. But since this is a real game and not an ABC Family special, it didn't turn out that way. Michigan State is very, very good. It's hard to fully appreciate how high their ceiling is, but their games against Maryland Saturday and Purdue today goes a long way to proving why they are legit National Title contenders. They play mature, deliberate basketball; everyone seems to always be in the right place, making the right play. And I haven't seen a college basketball player better than Denzel Valentine. I hope to not see them again this season.
Like most Michigan State teams, this one appears to be peaking at the right time, and Purdue has put on their best MSU-in-March impersonation. Going down by 13 in the second half has a way of deflating a team. After all, it is their third game in three days, and guys are a little tired, and well, next week matters the most, and it's alright...
Except this year it wasn't alright. A team that could have taken their double-digit loss and gone home to watch the NCAA Selection Show decided instead to fight back, to play with energy and resolve, and give Michigan State hell, because why not. And funnily enough, wins in March are often wrought not out of perfect play and start-to-finish dominance, but the grind that comes from being punched in the mouth, getting bloodied and disoriented and stepping up again and again. Playing hard on defense, fighting for rebounds, taking a good shots. Effort begets dunks, blocked shots, offensive rebounds, and free throw attempts. And those in turn have a way of melting leads away, bloodying and disorienting your former aggressors, and putting yourself in the position to hoist that trophy.
But you gotta finish. It's a hell of a thing to close a big lead but an entirely different thing to finish out on top, as Michigan State should know so well from February. The last 10% of the deficit is always 90% of the work, and you need a few things to break your way if you're going to overcome.
Today, Purdue stepped right up to the precipice of victory, but ultimately fell short. Ray Davis takes a bad three, Caleb Swanigan takes a REALLY bad three, Johnny Hill doesn't show enough patience, Purdue misses their last six shots...that little extra oomph to finish off Michigan State wasn't there. A pity; an opportunity presented, and an opportunity missed.
But I can't be upset at the loss, not the way this team is playing, and not with the NCAA Tournament field being as open as it is. There are quite a few victories left in this team, and I'm excited for it all to get started.