(This Could Be) The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
(Photo credit: Purdue Sports)
Here we are again, friends, at the beginning of the best time of the sports calendar. Aneesh and I discussed this on Sunday’s podcast (and if you’re not subscribed to the BS Podcast Network, treat yourself and get into it) but the spring to early summer is just super fun. You’ve got the seasons obviously getting less bleak, but you’ve also got the NCAA Tournament, the Masters, baseball starting, NBA and NHL playoffs and then, for those of you in school, the release for the summer. Man, what a time to be alive.
For Purdue, the NCAA Tourney gets going on Friday against Cal State Fullerton. I’ve seen a few themes emerging both since the release of the brackets and over a longer period of time, and which you ascribe to is probably mostly based on how much of an optimist you are and how long you’ve been watching Purdue basketball.
If you look at the season in the aggregate, Purdue went 28-6 and spent most of the year in the top ten, a good chunk in the top 3. And so here’s where you can be an optimist:
- Purdue had a hiccup in the Bahamas but A) that was a long time ago, B) it turns out that Tennessee was a really good team, C) even in those games they looked like they didn’t show up for, they barely lost and D) Purdue wound up absolutely crushing Arizona at the end.
- Purdue won 19 games in a row and looked like a true juggernaut. Sure, the Big Ten was “down” but Purdue wasn’t just beating teams – they were bludgeoning anyone who had the temerity to step onto a basketball court with them, almost like they were offended by the notion that Iowa had the gall to show up.
- The Boilermakers have four seniors, a skilled big man, excellent guard play (more on this in a moment) and an experienced coach. Aren’t these the ingredients to a March run?
- About that guard play... Perhaps the most important aspect of a successful tourney team, Purdue has Carsen Edwards doing it all – scoring, leading, swaggering. They have PJ Thompson, who despite his recent lull, is a senior guard who has truly been there before and is one of the most even, mellow guys you’ll see. And if he’s not on his game, they have the burgeoning swiss army knife Nojel Eastern ready to come in and microwave things up for a bit.
- And finally, the bracket. We’ve long said that for a tourney run to happen, you need a lot of luck, you need to play well and you need a reasonable draw. As we said on our podcasts, Purdue could not have asked for a better situation with this year’s path.
Let’s also consider that Purdue never got truly worked over this year. They lost…
- in OT to Tennessee by three
- by four to WKU in perhaps their worst-looking effort of the season
- by one to OSU (after leading by 14) because they couldn’t handle a rebound
- by three at MSU thanks to Miles Bridges launching a prayer that hit (after Purdue led most of the game and by a max of eight)
- by four at Wisconsin, which still bugs me more than any other one but in it Purdue led all game again and only lost by four
- In the BTT title game to Michigan, who Purdue had already swept this season
So no, I’m not trying to excuse any of the losses that shouldn’t have happened. You could argue that almost none of those should have if you’re being super critical. But the reality is you’re not always going to get the bounces and going 28-6 with every loss being close suggests you’re always in it.
Now, on the other side of the coin….why might you be a pessimist?
- Matt Painter has never advanced a team – even his very good teams – further than the Sweet 16 and to get more specific, they’ve never truly competed in those elimination games.
- This team could be running out of gas. They’ve been together since July and that’s a lot of focus and energy.
- Purdue has been lucky with injuries up until recently and now Vincent’s barking ankle is a concern.
- Purdue hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1980 and you know these guys – like all of us – hear about that all the time. It’s not the Cubs and 1908 but they have to get tired of hearing it.
- We keep getting hammered with the idea that the Big Ten is weak this year and so you have to begin to wonder to yourself, what are Purdue’s best wins? Arizona, I suppose, but that was forever ago and Arizona has again proven sometimes they just don’t show up.
We all love this time of year because of how fun these first few days are. Advancing to the second weekend feels like an absolute minimum requirement for this team. And how amazing could this begin to feel if they manage to make it to next Sunday and are playing for that elusive spot in the Final Four?
I don’t just want it for me. I want it for all of us. I want it for everyone who has had barbs sent their way over Purdue’s FF drought. I want to shut up the far inferior school to the south who still boast of titles that predate most of their fans lives. (The funny thing is, they don’t even really boast too much about their 2002 Final Four because a black guy took them there and it’s not a part of their history they really are proud of.)
I want this for these players. These seniors, who came here when Purdue was in the cellar and brought them back to the top of the conference and, honestly, to the near top of the nation. I want it for them because they weren’t able to get there with Ray Davis, AJ Hammons or Caleb Swanigan. I want those guys to be able to share a piece of it and say, “Hey, those guys we took under our wings rose all the way up.” And I want it for these players because they’re just so damn likable. And they care about being Boilermakers. They’re not Arizona or Kentucky mercenaries.
Of course, I think we all want it for Coach Matt Painter, too. This is a guy who is a very good coach and who has built a strong program here. It’s a program that is befitting Purdue’s history of Big Ten championships, of churning out NBA players and of having one of the best home arenas in the country where defense and hard work are emphasized. When you think about it, the one thing missing at this point for Matt Painter is a Final Four. At just age 47, it would be great for him to nab his first now.
It all begins today against Cal State Fullerton. The players are focused on the “one game at a time” mantra and that’s where they need to be mentally. For the rest of us, it’s time to begin whatever game-watching rituals we have. Let’s hope we need to exercise those rituals at least four times this month.
Choo choo, muthas.