The Purdue men's basketball team is not in a position to worry about aesthetics when it comes to winning basketball games. We're to the point that ANY victory is a good one. I thought tonight might still be an easy win, but when Jesse Berry connected on one of his trademark long three-pointers to give the Cardinals a 45-43 lead with just over nine minutes to play I was extremely worried. Berry is the type of player that can shoot you out of a game, but tonight was where he can keep you in one with extraordinary range.
That was a danger moment for Purdue. If the Boilers couldn't beat a middling MAC team at home the season could turn in a dangerous direction. Instead, the Boilers found a way. It was far from pretty. After a 10-3 start when it looked as if Purdue would blow out Ball State it seemed as every single one of the next 56 points had to be fought and earned.
That's how it is with this team right now. They can make things look so easy for moments, then for long stretches even the simplest basketball moves become painful reminders that this team is one of the most inexperienced in the country. Tonight, the boys got it done, however. A.J. Hammons gave us the final tie on a jumper at 47-47 with 8:25 left. Terone Johnson scored and was fouled just before the under eight timeout to put Purdue on front for good. Donnie Hale added a reverse layup and D.J. Byrd had a runner that snuck over the front of the rim on the bounce before Hammons added another basket. TJ would add another basket and Purdue was able to turn a two point deficit into a nine point lead at the under four timeout.
With that critical 13-2 run Purdue had breathing room. For the first time this season in a tight game down the stretch Purdue got better and closed out an opponent. This is something that did not happened against Bucknell, Villanova, Xavier, or Eastern Michigan. Against Oregon State Purdue fought back to tie, but ran out of gas. Against Ball State, admittedly not a great team, Purdue fought back and This young group finally, mercifully, won a game that was close.
The other four victories, even at Clemson, were games that Purdue had a big lead. Tonight was the opposite. Purdue had to fight and actually won the fight. Yes, it was against only Ball State, but it was the smallest of steps in the right direction.
There were other very good signs tonight Jacob Lawson gave us four early points and a dominant night on the boards. Defensively he was also strong, as Majok Majok and Zach Fields combined for only seven points. Byrd's jump shot finally got here after being lost on the return trip from Clemson. Ronnie Johnson played in control with 11 points, five assists, and hit some free throws.
RJ still needs the Nemanja Calasan "You get two jumpers and that's it" per game limit, but he is learning and looked better at times tonight. Donnie Hale and Travis Carroll did some really good Little Things off the bench tonight. Rapheal Davis didn't score and only took three shots, but we're still waiting to see what his last game meant.
Going forward I would love to see a starting lineup of TJ, RJ, Hammons, Davis, and Lawson with the eight man rotation completed by Byrd, Carroll, and Little AJ off the bench and Hale as the ninth man if needed. That allows us to go with some smaller lineups that seem to open up the offense while still getting some minutes and versatility with the bigs. Jay Simpson is now out for the season, so part of the bench got shortened for us already:
Freshman Jay Simpson will miss the rest of the season due to recurring problems with his foot, according to a #Purdue release.— GoldandBlack.com (@GoldandBlackcom) December 18, 2012
Simpson should be able to receive a medical redshirt, as a player can play in 10 games after an injury to see if he can go before redshirting. This is what happened to Carl Landry in the 2005-06 season when he started the year, but shut it down after about five games because his repaired knee was not ready. Unfortunately, it now puts us down to 10 scholarship players, but it puts Simpson on the same graduation track as next year's freshmen and he can make more of an impact next year.
But that is for later. Programs aren't made by beating the likes of Ball State. This is not a defining win by any stretch. It is a step forward. Purdue got better when it mattered for the first time this season. That cannot be overlooked.