Cold Blows the Wind
Since losing to Notre Dame (Purdue’s only quad 3/4 loss) in late December, Purdue has managed to win 14 of 16 games, an incredible run marred only by losses to Michigan State and Maryland. That turn-around, following a 6-5 start, saved the season for Purdue. After failing to get a good out of conference win, and frankly not looking great consistently in general, it seemed this year would be the slight downturn most expected after losing four of five starters.
But turn-around they did, a feat accomplished by numerous changes, large and small. For one, the team figured out how to let Carsen be Carsen, while also being balanced enough with the other four players on the court where they can prevent being shut down if Carsen struggles. They also - and give Matt Painter a lot of credit for this - figured out who to play in the post. You’ll have to forgive Purdue fans for mistaking Evan Boudreaux for being a facsimile of Brian Cardinal, but by the turn of the calendar it became clear that Purdue’s resident bookworm needed more time to adjust to Big 10 play. Matt Haarms was up and down, Grady Eifert hadn’t hit his stride yet, Aaron Wheeler was proving more useful away from the low-post grind…Purdue found itself both deep and shallow in the post, and the whole team suffered for it.
But then the switch flipped with Trevion Williams, and to Matt Painter’s credit, he rolled with it, putting the inexperienced and not-quite-ready-but-maybe-close-enough freshman out there with some heavy minutes. Trevion responded, Matt Haarms found his footing, and Purdue blossomed into a for real conference contender. The debate turned from, can they make the NCAA Tournament, to, can they get a top-3 seed?
This year’s performance in January and February syncs harmoniously with recent memory, and, outside of a couple really bad years, Matt Painter’s tenure as Purdue’s head coach. Going back to the 2014-15 season, and not including this year, Painter’s team has put up an impressive winning percentage of 72.1% in January and February, but only 56.5% in March (which includes the tail end of the Big 10 season, the Big 10 tournament, and the NCAA Tournament.)
It’s that thematic harmony that gives pause to Purdue’s performance as of late. Yes, outside of a tough loss at Maryland they’ve won their recent games, but it’s been two weeks since they’ve looked good doing it, struggling at times against an over-matched Penn State team, throwing it back to 1919 against Indiana, and then today’s rock fight against Nebraska.
Underscoring those concerns is the essential question: is this just a blip on the radar, an invariable downward swing due to the long season, a couple guys getting sick, and the intensity of conference play? Or is this a recapitulation of this program’s past?
Who can tell at this point, really. And as a fan, I spend the vast majority of my time spent thinking about Purdue basketball giddy at how much fun it is to watch them win and develop as players. What remains is not worth carping about. This team will either redefine what the ceiling appears to be for a Matt Painter coached Purdue team, or it won’t. And regardless, they won today and that matters more today than the unknowable future. Carpe vincere, and all that.
Still, what I wouldn’t give for the undeserved confidence embodied by IU fans on Twitter. Water finds its level, I tell myself, as Carsen has struggled through the month of February. Though he has taken more shots than scored points in four out of the six games played so far this month, you can easily tell yourself that he’ll snap out of it and resume his role the Hardwood Galactus, Devourer of of Defenses. And maybe escaping that downward swing, and the confidence brought from doing so, will be enough for Carsen to break the wheel that Purdue has been stuck on for the last several decades. What’s the harm in thinking that anyway? Let’s not mourn a death that has yet to happen.
As Purdue escapes Lincoln ahead of the snow and the storm of a loss to a team with its head barely above water, we would all do well to remember that the journey is the destination. These larger questions pick at the back of our skulls, but they were absent from the smiles and hugs adorning those in black at Pinnacle Bank Arena Saturday afternoon. That’s enough for now; I’ll confront The Other Things later, when I’m forced to, and not a second prior.