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Sunday, Glorious Sunday

Yesterday was indeed a great day. I first have to give some love to the Purdue women's basketball team as they accomplished quite a feat yesterday in winning their seventh Big Ten Tournament. In doing so they clinched their 15th consecutive NCAA bid. The women's basketball team has clearly been the best sports program at Purdue over the last decade. They consistently have been a top 10 team nationally, have won a National Championship when no other current sport at Purdue has done so, and were one possession away from a second in 2001. I was fortunate enough to be at Purdue when the ladies won the 1999 National title and the celebration in the streets afterward (in this case, the loss afterward in 2001) was worthy of any men's title. Though I haven't covered them much I am still proud that they play hard through adversity and at least on the court (I know about Katrina Merriweather) have always represented us well.

This season easily could have been a rebuilding year as the top two returning scorers, Lindsey Wysdom-Hilton and Jodi Howell, were lost for the year due to injury before the season started. A third to player, Natasha Bogdonova, was returning from her own ACL injury and was questionable at best. The non-conference season was brutal (losing 100-50 at home to Connecticut was the low point), but the ladies fought through and finished third in a very weak Big Ten. Still, they needed the Big Ten Tournament title to get into the dance and that is exactly what they did. In three days they knocked off the three I's of Indiana, Iowa, and Illinois, the last coming on a buzzer-beater from Kiki Freeman to secure a trip to the dance. This won't be a national title winning season, but after watching last night's game it is obvious Purdue will not go down without a fight. Whoever beats them will have earned their way into the next round as they scrapped as well as last year's men's team last night. Next year also could be a very big year with only Kalika France leaving. At least one more banner will be up in Mackey Arena next season thanks to the women's team, and there is plenty of room for more.

On the men's side of the ledger yesterday was a pretty good day. As it turns out the game with Michigan did have some meaning. I am not going to pile on Indiana right now because they are getting plenty of that from their own fans. Penn State, playing four freshmen and missing its two best players, took down the Hoosiers yesterday in State College. Because of that we got to play Michigan for the number two seed in Indianapolis. It's not nearly as good since Northwestern couldn't beat Wisconsin for us on Saturday, but being the number 2 seed has its benefits. Most importantly it means we play at 6:30 on Friday night now instead of 9pm. That shortens the rest and prep time for our opponent in both the first game and the semifinal, and prolongs our own rest and prep time for Saturday. We now can go into Saturday's game against an opponent who will have played a late night game the day before, possibly their second in as many days as well. I'll agree that this is not a huge advantage, but in tournament play you must take every advantage you can get and this was an easy one to get before even playing a game in the postseason.

Positives from the Michigan game:

Keaton Grant – How many games has he turned now with a flurry of second half 3-pointers? This seemed to be almost a carbon copy of the first Northwestern game in that we were struggling on the road against a bottom level Big Ten team, but midway through the second half Keaton knocks down a couple of huge threes to finally get us rolling. Yesterday it was three in a two minute span sandwiched around a Marcus Green steal and score that put us in full control. Keaton just seems to have a sense for the Moment and how to grab it. If we ever need a last second shot I would like him (or E'Twaun) to take it.

Free Throw shooting – We are so up and down in this area, but yesterday was an up day. We got to the line 25 times and hit 80% of those shots. I'll take those numbers in any game on the road. In this comes confidence. We are a very confident team that is not afraid of any deficit. This shows when we consistently knock down free throws, and I have seen we struggle more from the line when we are leading rather than we are trailing. It's like we're more comfortable playing from behind.

Second half field goal shooting – We were abysmal in the first half, but the ability to turn it on the second half once again came through. We have done this now at Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa. As long the shots eventually start to fall we are fine. That didn't happen at Indiana and we lost. Elsewhere, we have caught fire for at least part of the game. It seems like are a team that needs to shoot a little while before the shots start to fall. With no inside presence (it was lacking again here) that will probably be our downfall in March, but if we can keep hitting shots that will take us far.

Marcus Green – Marcus has been very quiet of late, but he was very efficient yesterday afternoon. His steal during Keaton Grant's 3-point explosion was a game-changing play. When he made the steal you just felt that Michigan slumped its shoulders a bit and resigned itself to the fact another loss was happening. I didn't realize that this lost set a record for most losses in program history for the Wolverines, but it did. Marcus had a large hand in that while only playing 17 minutes.

Negatives from the Michigan game:

First half shooting – We have got to figure out a way to avoid slow starts because now each one carries twice as much danger. Playing on a neutral floor in the NCAA Tournament against some 13 seed is not an advantage. If we get off to a slow start and they start to feel it the neutral crowd will get behind them. At that point things can snowball out of control. I say that because Michigan is probably worse than your average #13 seed that we would face in the first round and we let them hang around for 33 minutes. We're not going to get the benefit of playing some accidental 12-18 conference tournament champion in round one. We're going to be facing a good team with a good record. Because of that we cannot afford slow starts.

No name guys having careers days – Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ekpe Udoh to the Big Ten. He is the latest player in a long line of players that have had unexpected career days against us. I wrote on Friday that if we contained one of Michigan's stars, either DeShawn Sims or Manny Harris, we would win easily. We held Harris to 10 points and one of his worst games of the year but Udoh kept them alive in the first half with his sensational play. At least against Northwestern and Michigan it has happened for only a half. As long as we don't have a foreign player on the opposing roster in the NCAA's we'll be okay, because international players like playing us.

Turnovers – Obviously forcing 24 turnovers is a good thing and will keep you in any game. Giving up 15 though to a team like Michigan is another. Throughout the entire first half we just seemed out of sync. We were missing layups, throwing the ball away, playing sloppy, and were generally not awake. We were able to find our switch to get back on like we have for most of the season, but it is still a bad habit we need to break. In time that will come.

Up Next:

Here is an interesting fact: Unless we lose the Big Ten Tournament and get a shocking snub in six days Matt Painter will become the first head coach other than Gene Keady to lead us to the NCAA Tournament more than once. Of our 20 NCAA Tournament appearances Keady was on the sidelines for 17 of them. The other four are spread evenly between Painter (2007), Lee Rose (1980), and George King (1969). We knew that number would eventually change for Painter, but there were many people who thought that would be at least a year away. Keady made many appearances in an era of an expanded tournament, but it is very nice to see Coach Painter return Purdue to the tournament on a repeated basis.

It is also nice to have a few days of to prepare for the Big Ten Tournament and bask in this team's accomplishments. We have our first 24 win season since 2000 with a strong chance of getting to at least 26 wins if not more. The school record for wins is 29 set in 1994, and even that record is in reach with a Big Ten Tournament title. We knew these kids could be good, but there are very few who thought they would be this good this soon. Granted, that is the understatement of the year. I am exceedingly proud of what this group of guys has accomplished, and even of the seven losses almost half (Wofford, Missouri, and Iowa State) would probably go the other way if played again. As good as we are I really hope we have not maxed out, but if we haven't we are going to be scary good the next two or three years.

I like the way the Big Ten Tournament is setting up for us. The first round game will be far from easy as Penn State is playing well and Illinois still scares me, but it should be a win. Almost every Purdue fan wants a second shot at Indiana (which is quickly falling apart) in the semifinals. Hopefully Minnesota won't ruin that for us. The final would then be against Wisconsin, Michigan State, or Ohio State unless there was a major surprise. I honestly feel like we will be a 4 seed if we make the final, and a 3 seed if we win the tournament. A 3 seed also means we avoid a 1 seed until the last possible moment in a regional, but I feel we are good enough to play a close game with any team in the country.

The stage is now set for us and I like that we are getting some rest before playing our first Big Ten Tournament game. I feel like we are a team that is extremely well focused and because of how poorly Indiana has played lately we are in the weaker half of the Big Ten bracket. I long ago revised our goal to a solid Big Ten Tournament showing and a berth in the sweet 16. Next weekend will decide our road to those first two tournament games.

NEXT ENTRY: The final power rankings of the year as an homage to Kevin Smith.