Will There Be a Black and Gold Postseason?
It’s been a popular topic in the halls of Boiled Sports for a while now – whether or not this team can make the NCAA Tourney. At the start of the season, Aneesh and Michael – firmly entrenched in the Joe Tiller trademarked “manage your expectations” mindset – warned everyone not to hope for too much. They foresaw perhaps a 16-18 win season. And then on a Christmas podcast, I recall (I’ll have to check the tape to confirm) them landing on about seven conference wins for the team. Additionally, early in the year when B-dowd and I both told them this team had the talent to be in the tourney and really no excuse not to be, it was met with eyebrow-raising derision (well, I assume Mike’s eyebrow was raised – nobody has actually ever seen him). The team, for their part, has done little to settle this debate. They currently sit at 15-9 (7-4), a lovely paradox that we all can’t help but watch. 15-9 is the same overall record as Minnesota and – gasp – Penn State, and you know neither of them are coming near the NCAA Tournament. But the 7-4 conference record has our Boilers in a crowded second-place tie in the conference. Of course, losses at mediocre Illinois and middling Minny mean that this 7-4 team could truly be 9-2 without giant leaps of faith. But does the Big Ten’s supposed fall back to average status hurt the value of, say, a top 4 finish?
Wins over three consecutive ranked opponents is the stuff that tourney teams do…but tourney teams don’t lose home games to Gardner Webb or North Florida – and especially not to both.
So here we all sit, not really knowing what the next month will bring. While that’s exciting in some ways, it’s also a bit unnerving. Could AJ Hammons’ career at Purdue really end without a single NCAA Tournament appearance? And if you’re looking for criticisms to hurl at Matt Painter, where should that nugget be on the list?
On a recent Basketball Beat podcast (and if you’re not listening to those, seriously, what’s wrong with you?), the boys discussed Purdue’s likelihood of getting into the tourney depending upon hypothetical finishes (well, they discussed this after their requisite ten minutes on IU basketball – ZING!). There seems to be a consensus that of the seven games remaining, Purdue should win at least four of those if they want a chance. So let’s just go with that assumption for now… win four of these remaining games: @Rutgers, vs Neb, @IU, vs Rutgers, @OSU, @MSU, vs Illinois.
Now, as the guys said, you simply cannot lose to Rutgers. If you do, don’t expect to be going anywhere fun in March. Beating Nebraska at home seems doable. And I’m here to tell you, I think they’re going to crush Illinois on Jon Octeus’ senior night on March 7. They already lost to them -- and should not have -- and if they are on the doorstep of a tourney berth and it’s potentially AJ’s last game in Mackey… well, I think they’ll blow the doors off the Illini. So I think four wins is reasonable.
That would put our Boilers at 19-12 (11-7). Win a game in the BTT and be a 20-win Big Ten team with an 11-7 conference record and I think it’s awfully difficult to keep Purdue out of the tourney. Now, as always, there are so many variables here. If an unsung team runs through the SEC tourney and takes their automatic berth, for example, there goes an at-large slot to Kentucky that Purdue could have snagged. And of course that can happen all over the country and can hurt Purdue’s chances. I know the committee doesn’t necessarily care about this sort of thing, but if Purdue can nab one of the top four spots in the conference – which is certainly within reach – then they get to wait until Friday to play in the BTT and have that much shorter of a journey to the finals of that tourney. Yes, I’m getting ahead of myself, but aren’t teams that are playing hot the ones that make surprise conference tourney runs? What if Purdue puts together a few games in Chicago like their recent run? Could a 21+ win Purdue team be held out? I think not.
And if the Boilers can win the games I mentioned and nab one of the roadies at IU, OSU or MSU, then I think it becomes moot. Another high-quality win like that plus a 20-11 (12-6) record before the BTT means the Boilers are into the tourney, without question. In fact, if they go 12-6 in conference and are shut out, I’ll drive to Pittsburgh and wash Aneesh’s car, and then bring him beers while we watch an NBA game and I wear a Pacers jersey (no, not only a Pacers jersey, Aneesh).
The Purdue pessimist in me feels like they’ll find the banana peel and stumble down the stretch here and find a way to make it a bubble watch situation. But the part of me that has been seeing this group improve and learn their roles and learn how to be a team says they’ll get it done. And, honestly, they have the makings of a great tournament team. Reliable big men, rebounding, senior ballhandler…just get in there, boys, and let’s all have some fun.
Photos courtesy of Pinola Photography.