It remains to be seen if Clemson is going to be an NCAA Tournament team. The Tigers were missing their top scorer tonight, but Purdue went on the road to a place that they had lost at five years ago with a similar type of team and won a game that was badly needed in the left-hand column. Sure, Purdue did not close the best, winning by only 12 after leading by 23 early in the second half, but it was still a win, and that is all that matters.
The three losses to Bucknell, Villanova, and Oregon State showed that this was a young team that didn't quite know how to close. Tonight it was helpful that a 20-point halftime lead allowed for some mistakes (and there were a lot), but Purdue still made the plays that it needed to. The lead only dipped into single digits once in the final minute. While things looked dicey and had us thinking back to last year's losses to Xavier and butler Purdue still was able to answer and make sure things did not spiral out of control like those games.
Most importantly, everyone got involved.
D.J. Byrd - Byrd nearly outscored the tigers in the first half by himself. The kid was lights out hitting his first five threes and the single-game record for threes held by Cuonzo Martin and Robbie Hummel was in danger in the second half. Clemson got out on him and held him to two points in the second half but he got back to being the dangerous D.J. that shoots in rhythm and doesn't force things. That's what made him so good in Big Ten play last season.
Terone Johnson - TJ had a very quiet 13 points, but he was the calm, elder presence on the floor that provided a big basket more than once when Clemson made a run. At the 12:18 mark when Clemson was on a mini 4-0 run to cut it to 13 he hit a nice shot to push it back to 15. The same was true at the 6:20 mark when the lead was only 11 and we needed a basket to stem another tide. In fact, if he doesn't score at the 6:10 mark and Clemson goes down to cut it to nine or eight then it is possible we're looking at another Butler/Xavier situation.
Let's not forget TJ had six assists too.
A.J. Hammons - Big A.J gave us 10 points, six rebounds, two blocks, and two assists. As some said, freshman Hammons might be better than freshman JJ. He's going to be playing more minutes so I sure hope so. So far he has been the best of the freshmen.
Ronnie Johnson - RJ played some very smart basketball tonight. More than once he held up a break where the numbers were not there and it paid off with a later basket. He didn't try to force things like so many freshmen do. He finished with 10 points, three assists, and seven rebounds off the bench. More importantly, he had one turnover in his first career true road game.
Jacob Lawson - He battled foul trouble, but when he was in there he had six points, four rebounds, two assists, and continued to look like a completely different player from last year.
Matt Painter - If you noticed, Painter shortened the lineups a bit tonight. Sandi Marcius stayed on the bench (though I think he will play later on depending on the situation). Donnie Hale, Jay Simpson, and Rapheal Davis didn't play a lot (13 total minutes). It looks like a regular 7-8 man rotation is coming together with the three Johnson, Byrd, Hammons, Lawson, Travis Carroll, and Hale. Davis, Simpson, Marcius, and Dru Anthrop will still be there if needed too and Painter has shown he is not afraid to call on someone else if needed. All you need to remember is John Hart at Illinois.
Free Throws and three-point shooting - We were 9 of 11 at the line before the late foul fest and we shot 44% from long range. That is light years better than before.
Rebounding - Purdue won the glass 38-23 and had nine offensive rebounds. That is how you win these games. It is a relief to see Purdue owning the glass and limiting second chance opportunities. Those killed the Boilers in the first four games.
Clemson's shooting - Games are a lot more fun to watch when the other team can't hit threes or shoots poorly from the line. Clemson was 55% from the line and 17% from long range. Devin Booker was the only one that did much damage, and we limited him after a fast start.
This is not the best win in the history of basketball. This Clemson team was missing its leading scorer and got punched in the mouth early by an on fire D.J. Byrd. They never fully recovered. That said, this was an extremely important win because it showed that Purdue has grown after a rough start. Yes, there were rough edges at the end still, but Purdue locked up a double-digit win over a major conference opponent on the road. Clemson is a good team and could challenge for an NCAA bid too, so it is a win that can stay in the bank and hopefully grow some escrow.
More importantly, Purdue learned how to win. It now knows it can close games without the "here we go again" coming to the fore like it did against Villanova and Oregon State. The next step is to keep that momentum going to get a good win on Saturday against a good Xavier team that is also an NCAA threat. Getting back over .500 and having two nice wins against one of the more difficult early schedules as a whole in the conference would be very big for this young team. More importantly, it would give us two of the three wins we need against the Clemson-Xavier-Notre Dame-West Virginia non-conference quartet.
This team needs to keep growing. Facing a press or a zone is a maddening experience, especially when Purdue gave up a 9-0 run in about 3.4 seconds against the press. Clemson played some pretty good defense, but we were better when it mattered. For now, let's enjoy a night where Purdue basketball was fun again.