With football being on bye this week it means I have some free time to devote myself to my first love: the game of basketball. We're 25 days and counting away from the tipoff of the 2014-15 season. The intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday afternoon was a promising taste of what is to come, and the first scrimmage is only 13 days away.
Not a lot is expected from this team by non-Purdue folk. Can you blame them? We've missed the tournament for two years running and last year they closed the season in about the worst way imaginable. From someone who watches this program every game, it was worse than that. For two years running this team has not looked at all like how a Purdue basketball team should look. It had no toughness, no leadership, no defensive tenacity, and no fight. I can handle finishing last in the Big Ten as long as those things were there. The final Gene Keady and first Matt Painter teams lost a lot, but at least they fought their asses off in doing so.
What was so troubling the last few years is that Purdue clearly had talent, but that edge and will was not there. I don't know about you, but one of the reasons I am such a Purdue fan is because of the teams that fought like mad bastards. I love guys like Kramer, Cardinal, and Bobby Buckets over any 5-star pampered pretty boy because they were willing to bleed and die before losing. That has been missing for some time. This is why a guy like Stephen Toyra was coming off the bench and playing regular minutes in the Big Ten. He fought his ass off, while others did not.
This is a young team, but some of the elements that frustrated us the most are gone. Look at who were supposed to be the senior leaders on this team: Anthony Johnson, Jacob Lawson, and Donnie Hale, with Ronnie Johnson as a junior coming into his prime. If they were truly Purdue basketball players they would be ready to lead this team onto something greater from what the Baby Boilers built. Instead, they are playing elsewhere.
This is now Rapheal Davis' team. A guy like Bryson Scott needs his bulldog personality to take over. The five freshmen need to show why they were recruited heavily and why we should trust them from day one.
The season gets underway on November 14, and these guys will have to come together in a hurry. In looking at the non-conference schedule, or any non-conference schedule, really, a goal needs to be 10 victories. With 10 wins in 13 games, plus a 9-9 record out of conference, any team in the Big Ten will have enough schedule heft to at least be in consideration for an at large NCAA berth. Purdue is always going to be in an exempt tournament like Maui with other possible NCAA teams. It is always going to have the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the Crossroads Classic to add two more quality games. The Big Ten schedule will always boost the RPI too. Because of that, 18-20 wins will always have us at least in the Bubble discussion.
So can Purdue get those 9-10 non-conference wins? Absolutely.
November 14 - Samford - Purdue schedules games like this for a reason: to get automatic wins. With 13 non-conference games we already have seven spots held by Power Conference teams. Everyone plays games like this. Samford was 13-20 in the SoCon last year and 6-10 in their league. Indiana beat them by 46. They haven't been to the NCAAs in 14 years, so this should be a win. Prediction: win
November 16 - IUPUI - Surprisingly, Purdue has never played the Hoosiermakers. I remember they were in the old Boilermaker Invitational one year when I was a student, but Purdue didn't face them. IUPUI is moving into the renovated Pepsi Coliseum this year and has 1999 Mr. Basketball Jason Gardner as their new coach. It wouldn't surprise me if Purdue gave them a home game in a few years with their new home, but they were still 6-26 last season. It will be a homecoming for Justus Stanback, the son of former Boiler Ian Stanback who played nearby at West Lafayette HS. It also should be a win. Prediction: win
November 20 - Grambling State - There is bad, then there is bad even for a SWAC team. The SWAC is a neglected Division I conference where every school is so far behind almost every other D-I school in terms of resources that it is really pretty sad. Grambling was 5-24 last year, won only three SWAC games, and was one of the worst rebounding teams in the country. Now they have to face our 7-footers. If Purdue loses the coaching staff should be fired on the spot because there is no way this should even be competitive. Prediction: win
November 24-26 - Maui Invitational - This is a wild card because we don't know who exactly we're facing outside of Kansas State in the first game. As long as we avoid Chaminade in the seventh place game we're going to get three games against good teams, each with varying levels of value on our NCAA profile. Winning the tournament is a longshot, but if Purdue could get two victories it would boost the profile much like our last trip out there in 2006. Purdue won two games then, and it paid off as the Boilers returned to the NCAA Tournament.
It is a lot like last year's Old Spice Classic. The worst case scenario was Purdue losing the first two games and having to play Siena, a team it already defeated, in the seventh place game with no boost to the profile. This year if Purdue drops its first two games it is very likely facing Division II Chaminade in the 7th place game, which provides even less of a profile boost because, as a D-II team, it wouldn't even count in the RPI.
Kansas State was 20-13 last year and made the NCAAs, so a win over them in the opening game would be beneficial. Purdue would then likely get No. 2 Arizona in the semifinals, which is most likely a loss. At least the Boilers would then dodge Chaminade and get San Diego State, Pittsburgh, or BYU in the third and final game. A loss to Kansas State would mean a game with Missouri (assuming they lose to Arizona) to avoid Chaminade.
The absolute best case scenario is rolling through with wins over Kansas State (just outside the top 25) Arizona (No. 2), and San Diego State (No. 17). Pittsburgh is also just outside the top 25, and Missouri and BYU would both be a respectable win. For now I will err on the side of Purdue being a young team and only getting one win, but as long as it comes in the first two games there is no trouble with it. If Purdue gets two I will be ecstatic because it means they likely beat a top 25 caliber team. Prediction: 1-2
December 2: North Carolina State - Purdue currently has the longest active win streak of any team from either conference in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, having won five in a row. NC State was 22-14 and made the NCAAs last season, but lost to St. Louis after winning one of the play-in games. This is a better team than the Boston College team Purdue stomped last season, so the value of a victory would be that much more. It is most certainly a toss-up game, but I think Purdue defends its home court to keep the streak alive. Prediction: win
December 6 - North Florida - The Ospreys were 16-16 last year in a one-bid conference, so this should be a relatively easy win at home. Purdue beat them with ease a few seasons ago too. Prediction: win
December 8 - IPFW - This game has danger written all over it. The other Hoosiermakers were 25-11 last season and came within a few minutes of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time. They lost their all-time leading scorer, but they are full of hardworking in-state kids. This game is their season, so don't be surprised if they keep it close or even pull the upset if Purdue struggles. This is a possible NCAA Tournament team, so it could carry a surprising amount of weight later on. Prediction: win
December 10 - Arkansas State - The Red Wolves were a decent Sun Belt team last year at 19-13 and they played some good teams like Nebraska tough. This should be a win, but I wouldn't exactly set it in stone. Prediction: win
December 13 at Vanderbilt - This is Purdue's only true road game of the non-conference season, so getting a victory would look really nice, true road victories always have high value, especially over Power Conference teams. Vanderbilt was 15-16 last year and 7-11 in the SEC, but always plays tough at home. They took No. 1 Florida to the wire. I don't think Purdue gets both the NC State and Vandy games, but I'll give us the NC State game since it is at home. Prediction: loss
December 20 vs. Notre Dame in Indianapolis - We now live in a world where the Irish will play us more regularly in basketball than in football. They were 15-17 a year ago, but have won all but one game in the history of the Crossroads Classic. Purdue has never won there, so we're trying to overcome history. One of these days we're going to have to win one of these, right? Prediction: win
December 22 vs. Gardner-Webb - The Bulldogs were 18-15 a year ago, but since this is the last game of the non-conference slate it should just be a tune-up before Big Ten play. We can't afford to lose any of the games like this. Prediction: win
Best-case scenario - 12-1 - With the only loss to Arizona out in Maui. They are the only team I would be totally surprised if we beat them.
Worst-case scenario - 7-6 - Purdue drops the first two in Maui and only beats Chaminade. They lose to NC State, Vandy, and Notre Dame while also dropping the IPFW game. Of these games Purdue has to beat IPFW and at least get two of the five or six against Power Conference teams.