Like everything else for this Purdue basketball team, today did not come easy. It's leading scorer was injured and held scoreless for a second straight game. Iowa was playing without its top scorer like Illinois was, but Mike Gesell, a 6'1" white guy, was driving and scoring with impunity against our 7-foot center. Gabriel Olaseni openly channeled Dennis Rodman for 11 offensive rebounds and 16 rebounds total, keeping alive possession after possession.
It all looked another painful Purdue loss. You know the type. Purdue plays as the better team and leads for 38 or 39 minutes only to fall behind and lose it in the last minute. The Kansas game in the 2012 NCAA Tournament is hte best example. When Gesell scored with 1:19 left it was his 11th straight point. It was Iowa's first lead since 14-13 with over 12 minutes left in the first half and it certainly looked like Purdue had pissed away another game. The Boilers were not rebounding and Gesell was virtually unstoppable, so matter what we did on the following possession it felt like Iowa was going to win.
Fortunately, we had Rapheal Davis and Basil Smotherman. The former was an up and down team leader that defends well, but has been an inconsistent scorer throughout his career. The latter had scored only 33 points on the season and only one point in the first six Big Ten games. Davis connected on an absolutely huge three-pointer with 50 seconds left to put Purdue back in front. This was highly unlikely as he was 2 of 18 on the year from long range before hitting a pair late in the Illinois game and it was his third in the game today. He has now hit five threes in the last 60 minutes of basketball after hitting only two in the first 18 games combined.
Then you had Smotherman, who stepped forward and was the only player who decided to rebound on the defensive glass. He had two huge defensive boards in the last minute on a day when no one else on Purdue chose to rebound. I say "chose to rebound" because when you give up 22 offensive boards at home it is clear that your team has made the conscious decision to not even try to rebound. That's not only bad, it shows a clear lack of effort.
Somehow, Purdue survived all that. It beat a ranked team for the first time in almost two years, though Iowa at No. 25 with a 32 point loss earlier in the week was already headed out of the rankings. It is a lot like football's last win over a ranked team, when they beat No. 25 Illinois in 2011 for the second of what would be six straight losses for the Illini after a 6-0 start. It gives Purdue another win over a possible NCAA team and keeps the dream (barely) alive of making the NCAA Tournament. That's all we can do that this point: Keep it alive a game at a time and see what happens.
What made this so enjoyable is that Purdue went back to what made the 2009-10 Big Ten title team so enjoyable. Yes, we had JJ, Rob, and E'Twaun doing the heavy lifting, but what was then is true now. Purdue is so much better when someone else is at least a threat for an unexpected double-digit scoring game. Remember John Hart at Illinois? That was Basil Smotherman today. Rapheal Davis scoring 24 today was a lot like a random Keaton Grant high scoring outburst.
For Purdue it is clear who is going to do the heavy lifting. Kendall Stephens and A.J. Hammons will do the bulk of scoring while Vince Edwards and Jon Octeus usually become the No. 3 guy and get close to double figures. Today Octeus and Stephens had a grand total of two points. Someone else had to do something, and today it was Smotherman and Davis. Combined with a great start and support from Haas and the usual offensive output from Hammons it was just enough for a win. Purdue has struggled because we don't have a Red Button anymore and performances from a role player like Smotherman are even more rare.
On Wednesday we'll face our toughest test of the season. I say that because Indiana presents a very difficult challenge. We could ugly it up with Wisconsin because we had the bigs to battle Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Indiana has excellent guards and, as they showed Thursday night, they can shoot the lights out of the gym. Our biggest weakness is defending the three and IU is coming off of a game where they shot 68% from long range and hit 15 threes. That's just absurd.
I have to give credit where it is due: Tom Crean has done an excellent job of turning this team around after their loss to Eastern Washington. Right now he doesn't have a single player over 6'7" playing more than 10 minutes per game, but he is lining up shooters that are also ridiculously quick and can pass, putting them with a next level point guard, and letting them either slice to the basket or bomb away from deep. That's a major concern for Purdue, who can't defend the three and let Mike Freaking Gesell drive like Allen Iverson in his prime.
I will have more on that later, but today we can feel good. Purdue faced a good team, had some major deficiencies, lacked its best shooter, and still found a way to win. For once everything did not need to be perfect for Purdue to squeeze out a victory.
We'll take it.