It is still very early. Purdue has a couple of games coming up against ranked teams. There is an 18-game Big Ten season still ahead. It isn't March yet.
Still, with a top 10 ranking in both major polls, a No. 1 ranking in ESPN's BPI, and the fact that Purdue is one of 8 undefeated teams left (and the only one with double-digit wins in every game) there is a deserved buzz that this could be a special year.
Just how special? This could end up being the best Purdue basketball team of all-time.
I know our neighbors to the South will already jeer "That isn't hard" even if Purdue miraculously ran the table to 40-0, but this team has depth, talent, size, and the ability to play with anyone in America. If it wins the next three games it will tie the best start to a season in school history. At minimum, it is on par with the team that spent much of the 2009-10 season in the top 5 and won the Big Ten. This got me to thinking, how does it stack up to Purdue's other great teams? Here is my informal list:
This is going way back, but Purdue's lone claimed National Championship team deserves to be in the discussion even if it came in a different era when its players would get run off the court today. They went 17-1 and won the Big Ten at 11-1. The lone loss came at Illinois 28-21 in the 7th game of the season. Some guy named John Wooden was named the National Player of the Year too and left a lasting legacy at Purdue.
There were some good teams (and pretty bad ones) in the intervening seasons, but in 1968-69 Rick Mount led the Boilers to their best finish in the NCAA Tournament ever. Purdue won the Big Ten for the first time in 29 years, the longest drought of its 22 regular season titles. Overall Purdue was 23-5 and an impressive 13-1 in the Big Ten, losing at Ohio State 88-83 in mid-February. Rick Mount was named a First Team All-American and the Boilers led the nation in scoring. Purdue also had two more NBA draft picks in Herm Gilliam and Billy Keller, who both complimented Mount.
The downside was UCLA and Wooden. This was in the middle of UCLA's impressive seven straight championships and the Bruins went 29-1 behind Lew Alcindor. Their only loss was a 46-44 loss to crosstown rival USC. Purdue's season was bookended by losses to UCLA. They started the season with a 94-82 loss at UCLA and ended with a 92-72 loss in the title game. It did not help that Keller and Gilliam were a combined 6 of 31 in the championship from the floor.
This team gets a mention because it is the only Purdue team to ever win a national postseason tournament. It was also the last year that only conference champions could play in the NCAA Tournament, so it was a bit of a big deal to win the NIT. The overall record wasn't spectacular at 21-9, but Purdue went 10-4 in the Big Ten with three losses by a total of four points. Once in the NIT Purdue avenged a pair of regular season losses to Hawaii and Utah to take the tile. Of Purdue's losses the Boilers were agonizingly close in the following:
81-80 vs. Clemson
86-85 at Miami (OH)
87-85 at Utah
76-74 at Michigan State
112-111 at Iowa in triple overtime
80-79 at Indiana
That's six losses by eight points.
How do you win the Big Ten but get left out of the NCAA Tournament? Well, in 1979 it happened. Only 40 teams made the NCAAs back then, and with 25 conferences, there was steep competition for the precious few at large bids. Purdue went 27-8 overall and 13-5 in a brutal Big Ten that included a 52-50 win over No. 1 Michigan State with some guy named Magic Johnson. The Spartans shared the Big Ten crown with Purdue and Iowa, but Purdue was a combined 1-3 against them. Purdue had schedule strength with a loss to undefeated Indiana State (with some guy named Larry Bird) and a loss to NCAA team in BYU, but it wasn't enough. Iowa and Michigan State got in, and Purdue was sent to the NIT where it lost to Indiana 53-52 in the championship game.
For a brief time I could say that Purdue made the Final Four every season of my lifetime. Since I was born in October 1979 this year always stands out even if I don't remember it. Purdue was 23-10 overall and 11-7, but made the NCAA Tournament after it expanded to 48 teams. The boilers beat LaSalle and St. John's to reach the Sweet 16 as a 6 seed, They then upset Indiana in the only NCAA Tournament meeting between the two schools before beating duke to reach a second ever Final Four. Once again, UCLA ruined the year with a loss in the semifinals, but Purdue won the national 3rd place game over Iowa in Indianapolis.
This may be the first year of far too many where Purdue did not get it done in March. Purdue went 25-5 overall and shared the Big Ten with Indiana at 15-3. Purdue split with the Hoosiers, each winning on their home floor by 11, so you could not have had a more dead even split for the big Ten crown. Purdue's only non-conference loss was against North Carolina in Dallas, but a 106-68 loss at Michigan on the final day of the season cost Purdue not only the outright Big Ten title, but a No. 1 seed as Purdue was ranked 3rd nationally. Purdue got a No. 3 seed and beat Northeastern 104-95, but were upset in round 2 by Florida 85-66. It was a lot like the 2010-11 season where Purdue was great for four months, but fell apart in the end. Had Purdue gone on to the Championship game it would have faced Indiana in a rematch that probably would have set the state on fire.
This team was absolutely incredible and was my pick for the best Purdue team ever. If not for a 104-96 loss to Iowa State it would have started 18-0 and would likely have achieved the only No. 1 ranking in school history behind the fabled Three Amigos. Instead it reached No. 2 on three occasions, dropping it with losses to Iowa State, Ohio State, and defending national champion Indiana. Purdue won the Big Ten at 16-2, a second straight title after sharing the previous year with Indiana.
Purdue easily got a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled to wins over Fairleigh Dickenson (94-79) and Memphis State (100-73). In the Sweet 16 it got a Kansas State team it had already beaten 101-72 in December, and with the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the regional already out Purdue had smooth sailing to the Final Four, right?
You haven't seen much Purdue basketball then. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead Purdue lost to Kansas State 73-70. It was a flat out choke job that, honestly, still stings. Kansas State then lost to Kansas in the regional final and the Jayhawks would eventually win the title as a 6 seed.
This is the year Purdue absolutely should have won the National Championship, but choked.
This team was not as deep as 1987-88, but it one thing that Gene Keady had never had before: The Biggest, Baddest College Basketball Player on Earth. The Big Dog, Glenn Robinson, was the unquestioned National Player of the Year and became the second No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft from Purdue and first since Joe Barry Carroll in 1980. It was Big Dog's world and we were all just living in it. Purdue started 14-0 and was ranked 9th before a 75-69 loss at Wisconsin. For reasons that are still baffling they lost at Penn State in their first Big Ten game ever against the Nittany Lions, but still won the Big Ten at 14-4. The clincher was a 95-94 win over No. 3 Michigan in Ann Arbor where Big Dog beat the remnants of the Fab Five with the Big Ten crown on the line.
That gave Purdue a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Purdue rolled past Central Florida, Alabama, and Kansas into the Elite 8. Unfortunately, Robinson injured his back either in or after the Kansas game and Purdue lost to Duke 69-60, missing the Final Four at 29-5.
There was not a ton of star power on this team, but it was a typical Gene Keady team where everyone played together and it made a great TEAM. It opened the season as the two-time defending Big Ten champs with a loss at Memphis by 15 and took some lumps in a loss to No. 2 Villanova, but came together after that. Only midseason losses to Illinois and at Penn State dampened things as Purdue eventually rose to No. 5. A 56-52 loss at Iowa on the final day of the season did not stop Purdue from winning its third straight outright Big Ten title and a second No. 1 seed in three years.
That's when something worse than 1988 happened. Purdue barely survived a last-second shot from Western Carolina 73-71. You would think a scare in becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed would have woken them up, but now. Purdue played like absolute crap in a 76-69 loss to Georgia and another Final Four was missed.
Like 1993-94, this team started 14-0 before losing at Wisconsin. That started a three game losing streak with losses to Ohio State at home (where Robbie Hummel was actually glowing he was so hot in the first half) and at Northwestern, but Purdue was 23-3 and ranked third thanks to the return of Lewis Jackson from injury. LewJack came back against Illinois after the loss at Northwestern and Purdue went on a roll. It won at Michigan State and Ohio State to take full control of the Big Ten race with five games left, including home games against Michigan State, lowly Indiana, and a road trip to Penn State.
What followed was perhaps the most painful night in Purdue basketball history.
Yes, Purdue hung on to beat Minnesota, with Keaton Grant hitting the game winner after a double-digit comeback, but the Boilers were not as deep and as strong after... well, you know.
What is so frustrating is that up to that point, and even in that game, Purdue looked awesome. LewJack was rounding into form and Purdue was crushing a desperate Minnesota team on its home floor. Yes, we have the memory of sharing the Big Ten title, beating Siena, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas A&M to reach the Sweet 16, but it will always be there. Purdue was 23-3 before that Night in the Barn and just 6-3 afterwards.
This was supposed to be the year too. When JaJuan Johnson announced that he would return for his senior season I declared it was Purdue's first step towards the 2011 National Championship. It was a reasonable expectation. Purdue had three senior leaders, all excellent players, coming back with some established depth behind them. It was title or bust.
As we know, it didn't happen. It was still a very, very good year at 26-8 and 14-4 in the Big Ten. Purdue was ranked all season, got as high as No. 6, and E'Twaun's 38 Special against Ohio State remains as my favorite game I have ever attended at Mackey Arena, but it also could have been so much more.
First there was the obvious: Robbie Hummel's second knee injury denied us what was supposed to be a truly memorable season. He was supposed to come back for a triumphant parade lap as Purdue crushed the Big Ten and walked to the Final Four. Second was the not so obvious. On February 27 Purdue beat Michigan State by 20 in East Lansing, something that never happens, let alone in a year where the Spartans go to the Final after ANOTHER Final Four. That moved Purdue to 24-5 and even without Hummel a No. 1 seed and Big Ten title were still on the table.
Once the calendar turned to March, however, something happened and we will never know what. Purdue just did not look the same at all. They sleepwalked past Illinois on Senior Day, then lost 67-65 at Iowa with a chance to still tie for the Big Ten title had Ohio State lost the next day. It got worse too. Michigan State recovered from the 67-47 loss in East Lansing on February 27 to blast Purdue 75-56 in the Big Ten Tournament only 10 days later. Purdue would beat St. Peter's in the NCAA tournament, mostly because St. Peter's was awful, but VCU would run past Purdue 94-76 in a game where the Boilers had a complete and utter defensive meltdown.
To this day I have no clue what happened. Kelsey Barlow's cryptic suspension was likely part of it, but between the February 27 game at Michigan State and the March 1 game against Illinois, roughly 48 hours, Purdue completely lost its identity and was not the same team. If it was just one game against VCU you could write it off as a bad night during VCU's magical run, but it wasn't Purdue looked like a completely different basketball team in the last five games than it did in the previous 29. It was, and still is, bizarre.
To be continued...