Purdue Takes On Michigan State, Is Found Wanting
Sports are a bastion of vaguely significant but ultimately meaningless platitudes. You need a pithy catch-phrase to describe a general sense of overcoming adversity? Here, have a “grind it out”, “heart and hustle”, or an “answered the bell”.
The tricky thing, of course, is that beneath a million miles of eye rolls, there exists some truth in those platitudes. So when we talk about how it doesn’t matter what happened to you in the past, just in how you respond, it’s so generic it’s easy to ignore and move on, yet there’s enough truth there worth acknowledging.
Thus no game this season, no game in February for sure, exists on its own, devoid of all context. The schedule starts to shrink and the pressure mounts as teams jockey for position with the post-season looming overhead. A Big 10 title is too esoteric a concept for December, or even January, when half the league quietly whispers that this might be their year. Same for the coveted #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Mistakes magnify as the committee will eventually inquire as to what has been done to appease them lately. Wins over Arizona, Louisville, and Butler are all great, but to be complete those wins must be buttressed against wins against the best in your conference. Are you good enough to beat a sample of good teams from across the conferences? Are you good enough to beat those teams that know you the best?
So the stakes are set against Michigan State, a team dealing with its own issues setting expectations. A team once thought to be a shoe-in to run away with the Big 10 title suddenly found itself looking up to two other teams, neither of which they play more than once. Talent is not Michigan State’s problem, neither is coaching. Cohesion maybe? A clear understanding of roles? Depth, height, consistency? Everything or maybe nothing; Izzo would be loath to admit the truth, that he likes these mid-season swings, these dips in performance relative to expectation. They give him something to yell at his team about, a whetstone to sharpen his young, raw squad.
Michigan State has failed this season yes, setting themselves up for a response typical of a Tom Izzo coached team. After falling to OSU and UM in rapid succession, MSU found their groove, feasting on the soft midsection of the Big 10 and winning seven in a row. Quietly succeeding while those around them faltered, moving up the rankings and the Big 10 standings, asserting in their response to failure that they will not be easily dismissed.
But while MSU had seven games to contextualize their failure, Purdue had none. The Ohio State loss, at home, was a phenomenal missed opportunity. Presented with the chance to lock up first place in the conference, to provide further evidence that they have indeed earned a #1 seed in March, they fell one rebound, one box-out, one attack-the-ball, short. No time to think about it, no time to contextualize it, to distill the loss down to its constituent lessons and prepare your response. No, Purdue was left with only one permitted action: turn into the cold winter wind in East Lansing and face your toughest test, perhaps all season, bereft of the confidence that comes with winning.
While getting the win against Michigan State would be the primary goal, the subtext to today’s contest centered around Purdue’s able to play like the Purdue of December and January, to drown their opponent in threes and bruise them in the paint. Poor rebounding aside, the essence of this team was its ability to hurt you in many different ways, led by many different faces. Getting back to that space is what will carry this Purdue team forward. Be that team and no one can beat you. Fail to reach those levels, and the ground shifts beneath you.
What we got at Michigan State was a mix, a flirtation with the Purdue of a couple months ago, but accompanied by a disconcerting inconsistency. Once again, Purdue's offense consisted of Isaac Haas, Carsen Edwards, and then everyone else. Haas was unstoppable in the paint, taking all the physical abuse MSU could dish out on his way to 25 points. Carsen Edwards had 14 of his points in 35 minutes, though it took him 15 shots to get there. Missing in action were early season stalwarts PJ Thompson, Dakota Mathias, and Ryan Cline. Thompson took only two shots, both threes, making one. Mathias was 3-9 from the field, and appeared a step slow against the athletically superior MSU wings. Cline took one shot, which wasn’t a three, and generally looked overmatched on defense while he passed up good looks from three on offense. At one point Cline was tasked with guarding Miles Bridges, and though Cline did a serviceable job staying in front of Bridges, Bridges wasn’t forced into any shot he didn’t want, and most that he took he connected on.
And yet, Purdue was there at the end, giving up the lead with mere minutes to go, but generating enough offense, in whatever manner possible, to keep MSU from stretching their own lead beyond one or two possessions. But once the lead was surrendered Purdue would not snatch it back for good. The offense, having proved that nothing positive was going to happen if it wasn’t initiated by Isaac Haas, devolved to passing the ball to the big guy and watching alongside their fanbase, hoping that he could deliver once again. And most often, he did. But MSU made just enough plays, got lucky just enough times, where Purdue wasn’t able to threaten. Because as much as MSU struggled on defense guarding Purdue’s 7’2’’ monster, they had no such struggles when they themselves were on offense.
As time slipped away, the loss felt fated. And when Miles Bridges rose and connected on his NBA three to take the lead, it was the most devastating, and most predictable, way for this game to end. Purdue has been on the other side of that before (the second Michigan game comes to mind), but when it’s not your turn, it simply will not happen.
Two losses, four points. Purdue is perhaps a rebound and a defensive stop away from arguably being talked about as the best team in the nation. But with these two losses, albeit against high quality opponents, that is a conversation Purdue is not likely to find themselves in again this season. Now, perhaps, little will be assumed of this team, and Purdue will find themselves once again, as they did following Thanksgiving, feeling like they are worthy of the highest tier in college basketball, but having to convince eyes that will have grown more skeptical.
It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you respond. Purdue’s first response to adversity resulted in an 19 game win streak. It’s second, following the Ohio State loss, finds them where they are today, enviously looking at a number of teams who are where they think they should be. We’ll soon find out how they respond to the third. This response, the third of the season, becomes the most critical, as there will likely not be many more opportunities to overcome future adversity.