Bucknell earned itself a marquee victory on the road as Purdue struggled in its season opener.
We all knew there would be struggles because of the youth of this Purdue team. D.J. Byrd is the lone senior with extensive experience and the new of Terone Johnson breaking about half an hour before tipoff was certainly not good. That meant we were starting two players who were playing in their first collegiate game, a redshirt sophomore with only three starts, Byrd, and Sandi Marcius. The Boilers played a good first half, but the things we knew would be trouble spots came up in the second half and the Bison earned a very good win.
I am here to tell you that it is far too early to panic.
First, Bucknell played itself a damn fine basketball game. The Bison are a very good low-to-mid-major that will be in the discussion for an at large bid now that they have a solid road victory on their resume. They saw that they could get to the free throw line and did so, hitting 20 out of 25 shots. They needed to work on rebounding and did so. Purdue was defending Mike Muscala very well, so they got clutch work from Cameron Ayers and Bryson Johnson.
Second, Purdue was never able to put the Bison away, and that is also due to their talent and experience. This was a senior-dominated team that won 25 games a year ago and came within a few possession of making the NCAAs. They weren't afraid of playing at Purdue and it showed.
A couple of plays stand out. With 4:12 left Bryson Johnson hit a big three-pointer in the corner to make it 61-57 in favor of Bucknell. This capped a 7-0 run from 5:25 to 4:12 after Byrd put us in front 57-54 with a free throw. That was a critical stretch because Purdue had trailed for a good portion of the second half but we looked like we could take control and get some breathing room. Byrd missed the first of his two shots though, and Bucknell immediately answered because they're a good team and unflappable. That was an impressive run that came from their experience and our lack of it.
The second came with 1:54 left. Purdue trailed 63-61 after Byrd made a critical three-point play and had a chance to tie with a defensive stop. Ayers shot an ugly jumper, but missed it so badly that it dropped straight down to Muscala instead of to Ronnie Johnson who was in position to rebound. Muscala got an easy dunk to push the lead back to four, which was huge. That was really a case of luck bouncing their way, and there isn't much you can do about it.
As I said, the things we knew would be problems were. We shot 7 of 15 from the line, which is flat-out unacceptable anywhere, especially at home. Three-point shooting was abysmal. We also got some freshman moments, a few that came at the worst time. One such moment was when Ronnie Johnson had a breakway with 2:55 left and turned the ball over on a carry. There were also some problems with shot selection, especially in the second half.
One thing that was most disappointing was the disappearance of our bigs. Sandi Marcius played well early and had a nice three-point play, but didn't play in the second half as we elected to go with Travis Carroll. Jacob Lawson impressed me with two nice jump shots that he simply couldn't hit at any time last eyar, but only had the one block in the second half. A.J. Hammons had five rebounds and Jay Simpson had two very nice putbacks on offensive rebounds, but much of that was in the first half.
Part of the reason we got outscored 43-32 in the second half was that we didn't rebound as well or defend the paint. I am not sure where Marcius was, but Hammons and Simpson were more timid after some questionable foul calls. Actually, the whole team was more timid, especially on the offensive glass where we had success in the first half.
There were enough positives to have a lot of hope going forward. First, this is in no way a bad loss. Some people compared this to the 2007-08 loss to Wofford. That loss was far worse. That Wofford team finished 16-16 and 8-12 in the Southern Conference. Bucknell will be a 20-25 win team that will play in the postseason somewhere and likely the NCAAs if they win a regular season grudge match with Lehigh, who is also very good. Even after all that went wrong int he second half our best three-point shooter had as good of a look as we could have asked for with a chance to tie in the final seconds. He just hesitated a split second (I think because even he was surprised he was that open) and missed it.
Second, Ronnie Johnson and Donnie Hale each showed why they are starting. Ronnie had 12 points and a team high six rebounds. Hale had 15 points and four boards, leading us in scoring in his first collegiate game. I also was very pleased with Anthony Johnson, who had eight points and nine assists. We need little AJ and RJ to be solid, and that they were. In fact, if we get that RJ the rest of the season we're going to be just fine. he's only going to get better, too.
Third, Terone Johnson will be back. I think he makes a difference tonight and Purdue wins if he plays, but it was still a game we let get away even without him. His presence in the backcourt takes some of the scoring burden off of the younger players.
Fourth, we have Matt Painter. He will develop these guys over the course of the season. He knows this is just one game and we'll see over the course of the year, as Bucknell racks up win after win, that this is not a bad loss in any sense of the word.
Finally, there are plenty of other opportunities to erase this. Villanova, Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, Xavier, and West Virginia are all good, but not unbeatable teams we play in the non-conference season. Any one of those games will be as good of a win as tonight's would have been. Bucknell also could beat any of those teams. As long as we go 4-2 or better against them and win the rest of our non-conference games (which we'll be heavily favored in) we'll have a nice balance of quality wins, not bad losses, and be 10-3 headed into the conference season. That is enough to be in the discussion for an NCAA berth, which is the reasonable goal for this year. The strongest overall non-conference schedule of Painter's tenure overall will help immensely. Should Purdue win two games in New York this loss will easily be dismissed as a young team playing without a leading scorer against a very good mid-major.
It's going to be a long college basketball season. A ranked Florida State team lost at home to South Alabama tonight. Troy upset Mississippi State. Alabama barely survived South Dakota State. This season is a wide open one that is going to have a lot of upsets. We're a team that will have our fair share of them. As long as Purdue recovers to win its next test against a good team, Villanova, it will be fine.
Be a lot more concerned if Purdue loses to Hofstra on Sunday.