I didn't have a great feeling coming into this game, but still was confident that Purdue's defense was on an upswing, and would be enough to power Purdue to victory. Not only was I wrong, but I wasn't even close. In hindsight, the mirage set in front of us by our Boilers crushing St. Peter's was more an indictment of the Peacocks than a sign of good things for Purdue.
J had sizable concerns about this team's psyche after days of unrest- rumors of why Barlow was booted, Ryne Smith's injury and John Hart tweaking his ankle made my fellow BSer uneasy. Turns out, he was right and I was wrong. I really thought we'd see a focused couple of games from this veteran-laden squad. I thought they were mentally tough enough to draw together and get back to what made them great waaaaaaaay back in February. Sadly, I was wrong.
Like many of the losses this season, Purdue left no room for doubt in this one. It was close in the beginning, but began getting unraveled late in the first half as Purdue's poor shot selection led to VCU fast breaks and extremely-easy buckets. Allowing 40+ points in a half is never a good thing for a Painter-coached team. So we all knew that if the 10 point lead didn't shrink, at least by a few in the first few minutes of the second half, The Forces of Good were in grave danger.
At just before the 16:00 mark, VCU's lead was 12...and like that, the game was over for all intents and purposes. When I think back to this season, I can think of one double-digit comeback...and zero of that nature in the second half. Perhaps it's mental, perhaps its just that this team isn't an offensive juggernaut, but whatever the reason, leads that shouldn't be insurmountable quickly become so with this team. That 12 point lead quickly became 20+ as Purdue wilted, yet again and ended March how they began it- with a painful loss.
In late February, if you would have told me that the top-10 Boilers would go 1-4 versus four teams out of the top-25 in the next month, I'd have told you that you were as nutty as Charlie Sheen. We really believed that wins versus Wisconsin and Ohio State weren't the peak of the season, but a foretaste of what was coming in the tournament. We were wrong. And while February was amazingly-enjoyable, it really only makes tonight more painful.
The team that played the last four games didn't deserve the ranking that the real Purdue Boilers earned...they didn't deserve a three seed either...but they did deserve an early exit from the tournament and the public, self-induced humiliation we saw tonight.
Members of the media and lemmings on Twitter alike stated and re-stated that Purdue just wasn't fast, athletic or strong enough to hang with VCU. WHAT? While it definitely looked that way, it's tough to believe that a team with an All-American, an All-conference player and a solid supporting cast could look like a mid-major who barely got into the tournament. But this reversal of roles is precisely what happened. My favorite Gene Keady quote of all time is, "It's not who you play, but when you play them."
A white-hot, pissed off VCU team was given the gift of playing a soft-hearted, mentally-weak, unfocused and non-cohesive opponent and the result is they get to play at least another game while Purdue's players are done for the season. As I type, Notre Dame is struggling with FSU and Illinois is fighting hard against Kansas. Half of my brain says, "Damn, if this wasn't laid out perfectly for Purdue." The other half says, "This team wouldn't win the NIT right now...let alone earn its way into Houston...regardless of the road."
If you had the stomach and heart to stay with the telecast until the end of the game, you probably saw one of the most-heartbreaking images that I can remember in my life as a Purdue fan. While his teammates struggled, floundered and stumbled toward the end of the game, Rob Hummel couldn't resist the weight and pressure of what he was witnessing. He knew this season might have been different had things gone differently...he surely believed tonight would have been different had his body held together. I pray he didn't and doesn't feel guilty for something he couldn't control...but I absolutely empathize with him as that moment was just too much to bear.
Purdue's defense, no, its entire system, is based on playing smart, playing with grit and playing with heart. Our Boilers have played flat-out dumb the last few weeks as quick, bad shots and poor passes have reigned supreme. The grit that has helped define Purdue teams for more than a generation has gone missing. And most-shocking and most painful, the heart that they've exhibited over the last few seasons simply didn't even murmur this month. And because of the confluence of these factors, this season is now over.