Purdue Wins the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip Off Tournament
There's winning, and then there's winning with confidence. Winning by a margin. Never having the ultimate result be in doubt. As much fun as it may be to be a casual fan watching a back-and-forth affair (such as the thrilling finish to the Wisconsin-VCU game), watching your team stress and strain to put away a quality opponent can be an emotionally challenging affair. That's where I found myself throughout the first 3/4 of the Purdue-Florida game Sunday afternoon, sitting on the edge of my seat, never quite comfortable with the five point half time lead, or even the multiple 10 and 11 point leads deep in the second half. Perhaps I'm conditioned for failure, having been burnt often in recent years by both the basketball and football teams. But then at the 8:42 mark Dakota Mathias hit a three pointer to put Purdue up 66-60. Then PJ Thompson hit a three. Then Hammons made a jumper, Ray Davis hit a layup, and Vince Edwards hit two free throws and suddenly Purdue was up 75-60 against a quality SEC opponent and any hope the Gators had of coming back were extinguished. Outside of a meaningless 7-0 run in the final two minutes, Florida was put to rest as Purdue stepped confidently on their throat. Game over, tournament champions anointed, time to head home for the holidays.
It's so easy to get over-hyped in the offseason, only to have reality hit like a Holly Holm kick to the face (see: football, Purdue; 2013, 2014, 2015). So it is only with with great hesitation that I allow myself to consider the potential of this team. But it's getting harder and harder to deny that this might be Purdue's best team in over 15 years; a solid collection of players whose styles all compliment each other, who all play hard, know their roles, and who are deadly effective in those roles. Purdue's bigs will get the lion's share of the national attention this year, and for good reason. AJ Hammons is as good as it gets when he's dialed in, and Isaac Haas might in fact be better (hold that thought for now, but don't let go of it). Caleb Swanigan is an absolute monster as a four; at one point early in the first half it seemed that he was by himself putting Florida into foul trouble. With his mix of strength, intelligence, and positioning, they just had no answer for him on the blocks, other than to hang on for dear life. And this wasn't Southwest Middle-of-Nowhere State they were playing. Florida is filled to the brim with strong, athletic bigs, and Swanigan was undeniable.
But what will ultimately determine if this team is what else it can do other than throw the ball into the middle and hope for the best. And though the season is young, early returns have been encouraging. Three point shooting, so much the bane of recent Purdue teams, has been on point lately. Purdue's guards (and Vince Edwards) kept the Gators honest today, to the tune of 42% shooting from distance. If your bigs can't be stopped one-on-one, and your shooters hit three at a 40% clip...well, I'd love to see a team that could survive that sort of onslaught.
Thus Purdue survives their first real test - a game away from home against a Power-5 opponent with tournament aspirations of their own. More than survived, they thrived, in ways one wouldn't typically expect during an early season tournament. Most teams have struggled a little, not Purdue.
Special shout-out to PJ Thompson for his 15-5-4-2 performance tonight (and no turnovers). He was incredible, and huge in moments where Purdue needed someone to be huge. They don't need that stat line every night, but they will need it every once in a while. Good to see that he can deliver.
Next up: Lehigh, best known for beating then No.2 Duke back in 2012. This incarnation of Lehigh is pretty bad (0-4), but Purdue can't afford to look past then to an underrated tough stretch with back-to-back games against Pitt and New Mexico.