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Reviewing a championship: How the Boilers got back on top

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My apologies for the lack of an update yesterday. I was basking in the afterglow of a Big Ten championship season and I was also working on a Big Ten Tournament preview piece for both SBNation.com and CBSSports.com. Since the Big Ten was kind enough to grant me press access to this week's event, SBNation wanted me to head their national coverage and throw it up on CBS. About five minutes after a round of woohoo-ing and general jackassery at receiving a major resume boost I grudgingly accepted.

Speaking of the tournament, I wouldn't mind gauging some interest at a pre-game appearance Friday night at Scotty's. Since Purdue plays at 6:30 I could be there around 5:30 for anyone who wanted a frosty malted pre-game beverage with hops. I will also have a more Purdue-centric preview up later this week, as well as OpenThread for all 10 games live from Conseco.

In the meantime, we have a new banner to hang in Mackey Arena. While I wanted to recap the journey to this championship based on this season alone, but in reality this journey began two years ago when the current juniors were freshmen. I wrote a piece after we upset Wisconsin in Mackey Arena welcoming us to the mountain. In it, I compared that monumental win as our arrival at the mountain we needed to climb in order to be a championship program again. It was not the pinnacle, but it was a win that stated we were ready to begin our ascension. At the time we had hoped to merely compete for an NCAA berth after losing David Teague and Carl Landry. Beating Wisconsin meant we were ahead of the curve and ready to challenge for championships.

Two years later, we are finally here. There were some sidesteps. A 2008 loss at Indiana cost us that year's Big Ten title. Last season we struggled with seven conference losses and it felt like a step back. This year, however, we persevered through injury to finally get back to the top of that mountain. Now that we are here, we can look across to see another, higher peak labeled the Final Four. After climbing this one, that next path doesn't look so daunting for this program anymore. Let's review how we got here.

December 29 at Iowa W 67-56 - Last season began with an 0-2 Big Ten start thanks to injuries for Chris Kramer and Robbie Hummel. One was a shocking loss to Illinois at home, the other was a shorthanded loss at Penn  State. Winning at Iowa was expected and though the game wasn't pretty, the result was a needed W. E'Twaun had 21 and Robbie 16 as JJ struggled to do much. We struggled so much in this game that Patrick Bade had a Big Ten season high of 5 points.

January 5 Minnesota W 79-60 - Minnesota was expected to struggle without Ralph Sampson III and that is exactly what happened. Purdue was rarely challenged in this Big Ten home opener, taking an early 2-0 lead atop the standings. Defensively, we held the Gophers to near 30% shooting, but Paul Carter became the first Guy Who Has a Career Night Against Us member with a season 15 off the bench. Kramer has a big night offensively with 15 while each of the Big Three has at least 16. This, plus great defense, equals a recipe for an easy win.

January 9 at Wisconsin L 66-73 - Exactly like the 1994 team, this year's Purdue squad couldn't move to 15-0 in Madison. It would have been Purdue's third straight win at the Kohl Center too, but Jordan Taylor has a coming out party while Trevon Hughes battled foul trouble. E'Twaun does his best by going for 24, but 13 for 24 free throw shooting does us in. Taylor's 23 points off the bench is a season high for him after had only 26 in his previous three games combined.

January 12 Ohio State L 66-70 - This was the choke. We wasted a phenomenal first half from Robbie and 35 points overall by refusing to stop Evan Turner in the last four minutes. Turner goes for a then career high 32 while Robbie's total is also a career best. Robbie hits 8 threes in the first half and we still somehow lose. Purdue led 62-54 with four minutes left but completely fell apart as Turner scored 14 straight in a 14-2 run over the next three minutes. This game is the reason we did not win the conference outright, as we were clearly the better team for 36 minutes, but choked it away in the last four.

January 16 at Northwestern L 64-72 - Other than the second Michigan State game, this was probably our worst performance of the season. We made the conscious decision that we did not want to rebound as the Wildcats won the glass 31-20. JJ fouls out with only seven points and two boards. Robbie and E'Twaun combined for 44 but we get little from everyone else. People declare us dead in the Big Ten race, just as Ohio State was declared dead at 1-3 coming into the previous game.

January 19 at Illinois W 84-78 - This will forever be known as the John Hart game. The redshirt freshman had not played in the previous six games and had only 33 minutes and 8 points on the season. He wasn't even in the scorebook, causing a technical foul when he did score, but he explodes for 14 as we stop the three game slide. Coach Painter shook up the lineup, starting Kelsey Barlow and Ryne Smith. Barlow goes for 12 as JaJuan Johnson wakes up for 24 and 12. Every aspect of our offense looks light years better from the Northwestern game. Smith sets a single game record for shot fakes.

January 23 Michigan W 69-59 - We appear to be well on our way to a Walk-On WhiteOut after leading 43-27 at the half. We lead by as much as 27 in the second half before letting off the gas and cruising the rest of the way. Zack Novak has a big game, but most of it came after the outcome was long decided.

January 28 Wisconsin W 60-57 - This was the first of three Big Ten games where our opponent had a chance to tie with a three at the buzzer, but missed. Keaton Nankivil continued to enjoy shooting in Mackey Arena with 25 points and 7 of 8 3-pointers. He puts a scare into the home crowd by hitting a triple with 43 seconds left to give Wisconsin a 57-56 lead. E'Twaun this the red button on a runner, we get a big defensive stop, and JJ knocks down two free throws with a second left to seal it. This game is notable because JJ did not get the start after getting to the arena late, while Patrick Bade gave a near 6 trillion with his first career start. This game also marked the return of Lewis Jackson, finally giving us a full strength lineup.

January 31 Penn State W 66-46 - In probably one of the dullest games of the Big Ten season Purdue takes care of business at home with ease. Robbie has 23 as the most noteworthy stat from an otherwise boring game.

February 4 at Indiana W 78-75 - Verdell Jones III misses a 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Hoosiers can't get enough in their best effort of the season. Tom Pritchard remembers that he is, in fact, a Big Ten post player and can play near the basket, at least for a half. He scores 13 in by far his best effort of the season. He even schools JJ in the first half before remembering he's Tom Pritchard in the second half. Robbie and JJ each have 21 while an epic Kramer Moment on Jones with 18 seconds left prevents the Hoosiers from cutting it to one. It is Purdue's first win in Bloomington since 1999.

February 9 at Michigan State W 76-64 - While the game at Mackey was Purdue's worst of the season, our first win in East Lansing since 1998 was probably our best overall game. Purdue moves into a first place tie by punching the Spartans in the mouth with a 47-33 first half lead. Michigan State gets it to three with 4:34 left, but E'Twaun hits the red button again for a big three, an assist to Hummel, and a driving layup to push it back to 10 in about 90 seconds. Chris Allen becomes the latest go apeshit opponent with a season high 21.

February 13 Iowa W 63-40 - We throw nearly a perfect game defensively against the Hawkeyes in an otherwise business-like win. Iowa shoots worse than 30% and JJ goes for 21 and 10. LewJack ends up dropping five dimes.

February 17 at Ohio State W 60-57 - This was almost a repeat of the Michigan State game as we used a fast start to set the tone. Ohio State does manage a comeback, but we get a Kramer Moment block on William Buford with 10 seconds left. It is almost a bad thing, as we can't secure the rebound and Jon Diebler gets a great look at a three as time expires. JJ has another big game with 24 while Keaton Grant comes alive with 13. This is Purdue's first ever win at the Schottenstein Center.

February 20 Illinois W 75-65 - Grant continues his resurgence with 15 off the bench as Purdue counters a school record 16 assists form Demetri McCamey. Robbie has 22 with a perfect 12 for 12 performance from the line. Purdue gets to the line so much that Bruce Weber has a meltdown and gets a technical late. A 28-5 free throw shooting edge will do that, which makes me more impressed that Painter kept his cool last year against Oklahoma.

February 24 at Minnesota W 59-58 - In what was expected to be our final serious road test Purdue looks absolutely unstoppable in the first 13 minutes. With a 26-14 lead Robbie Hummel goes on a drive and just as he plants to cut to the basket he comes up limping. It is a torn ACL and he is done of the season. Purdue gives up a 19-0 run that could have been worse, but claws back into it by the end. Grant hits a huge jumper with 13 seconds left and Devoe Joseph misses a winner at the buzzer. The national media writes Purdue's season off entirely the next day when Hummel's injury is revealed.

February 28 Michigan State L 44-53 - the Boilers fail miserably in their first full game without Hummel, losing to the Spartans at home in an ugly game. Michigan State commits 23 turnovers, but outrebounds Purdue 44-16. As coach painter says, Robbie Hummel would not get 28 rebounds if he played, so this is a loss based on effort. The offense looks totally lost for stretches as MSU tries time and again to keep Purdue in it with turnovers. Raymar Morgan and Draymond green each have double-double efforts for Michigan State, who simply outworked Purdue.

March 3 Indiana W 74-55 - Purdue has a two hour group therapy session on Senior Night as Kramer, Grant, and Mark Wohlford play their final games at Mackey Arena. Kramer has 18 points, six assists, and a few more Kramer Moments for the home crowd in a virtuoso performance. Derek Elston plays maybe his best game so far, but it is not enough for the Hoosiers. E'Twaun leads the boilers with 21.

March 6 at Penn State W 64-60 - Purdue looks to be in control throughout, but once again surrenders a big lead late. Penn State even does it without Talor Battle, as Chris Babb goes nuts from long range. Fortunately, we get a Kramer Moment on defense and the mother of all Red Button shots as E'Twaun banks in a huge 3-pointer with a minute left. Babb misses a three to tie with 10 seconds left and JJ seals the title by hitting one of two with four seconds remaining. It is Purdue's 22nd Big Ten title and first in 14 years.

Perseverence

That is what we will take from this season. We had our projected full-strength lineup for a mere seven full games from January 28th through February 20th, but we are a conference champion, 26-4, and in the discussion for a number 1 seed. We did not lose a game in which we were at full sterength, and we in fact showed that we might have had the best team in the country when fully healthy. It is this atttude that has me thinking we will be in any game against any opponent the rest of the way, and those that think we are done are sorely mistaken.