Let's face it, as Purdue fans, our guard is forever up. It is not just with basketball. We always expect the banana peel to come from somewhere just as we're about to grab the brass ring. Unless it is in men's diving or women's golf, something always seems to happen just as one of our athletic teams is about to break through, be it a certain Fumble, knee injury, dropped fly ball in the 2012 NCAA baseball tournament, or Elite 8 match in volleyball. It is almost conditioned in us.
That said, is it time to adjust our expectations and open up a bit when it concerns this basketball team? Last night as Pittsburgh took the lead after trailing 24-7 at one point I was thinking it was same old, same old. We were treated to 10 minutes of basketball Nirvana in those first ten minutes, but the next 20 minutes showed why games are not over that quickly. When Pittsburgh took the lead it felt like one of those old moments where a cold dose of reality was ready to slap us back down into our place.
Then Ryan Cline and A.J. Hammons took over. Cline started bombing away from deep and Hammons was a force of nature on both ends of the floor. From down 44-43 with the home crowd rocking Purdue surged back in front 61-50 with an 18-6 run in about a seven minute span. It was the first real moment of adversity this season. For the first time the Boilers were trailing after halftime, and it came on the road without the heart and soul, Rapheal Davis, on the floor.
Previous Purdue teams would have wilted. Instead, this Purdue team adjusted its shoes and got better. While Cline and Hammons were the centerpieces, the final spurt was Purdue basketball at its finest because it involved the entire team making all the Little Things plays needed. The go-ahead three came about because Johnny Hill chased down a long rebound from a missed Kendall Stephens three. He also made the assist. Later on Caleb Swanigan would have some huge rebounds and Vince Edwards would have an assist on a Cline three. P.J. Thompson added a pair of steals, while Stephens had some nice assists.
It has been a very long time since Purdue has had a do everything player that can win games by himself. Even E'twaun Moore, the famous Red Button, was part of a deadly trio that had far too few games together. Even after Hummel was injured it wasn't like JaJuan Johnson was some stiff (He only won Big Ten Player of the Year and was an All-American). You probably have to go back to Glenn Robinson to find a Purdue player that was so dominant he could win games single-handedly.
Because of that, Purdue is at its best when things like last night happen. It may be corny, but it is like Hoosiers when Norman Dale says that he needs a teamt hat is "five players on the floor functioning as a single unit". That is when Purdue basketball has always been at its best. It is not just one guy that gets things done, but any of the five on the court. The main guy can also change from night to night. One night it can be Hammons. Against Lehigh it was Isaac Haas. Against Florida it was Davis. Right now Purdue has ten players that have scored in double figures at least once. Guys like Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias may have been quiet last night, but they can get hot from three and drop 15-20 on a given night. Even when Stephens wasn't hitting he had five assists.
That's why we should consider adjusting expectations with this team. Before the season I felt that a top 4 finish in the Big Ten and advancement to at least the Sweet 16 was a reasonable goal, with anything else being gravy. Now? I am not so sure. Yes, it is very early, but Purdue has beaten everyone it has faced by at least 13 points. Five of those teams (Florida, Old Dominion, Vermont, Lehigh, Pittsburgh) have a legitimate hope of making the NCAA tournament either as an at large team (in the case of ODU, Florida, and Pittsburgh) or because they are one of the favorites to win their smaller conference tournament. In this, Purdue has been without A.J. Hammons or Rapheal Davis, its two senior leaders in four of the six games. There are still three big tests in the non-conference, starting Saturday when a very good mid-major and possible NCAA team in its own right comes to Mackey Arena, but so far Purdue has been as dominant as you can ask of it, all while trailing for less than a minute after halftime in all seven games total.
Yes, I am still a Purdue fan and will always be guarded because of it. Still, this is probably the first time since 2011, when Purdue made Ohio State wilt in one of the best atmospheres I have ever been in for a game at Mackey Arena, that you can start the "okay...maybe?" thoughts. This team is deep, talented, and has answered the questions about having guards with a resounding yes through seven games. There will be off nights and even some losses later on, but for now we have seen just how good this team can be with that opening stretch last night.
And we know it can be even better.