Tom Izzo foiled us again.
For the third time in five years Tom Izzo swooped in an grabbed a player that Purdue was heavily recruiting as a difference maker in the program. First it was Branden Dawson, then Gary Harris, and now Caleb Swanigan. The No. 8 recruit in the country had listed Purdue as one of the last teams he was considering, but in the end, the Boilers were spurned in going after a blue-chip recruit.
Here is the harsh reality, however: It is going to keep happening.
Currently, there are 18 five-star players in the ESPN top 100. Rivals lists 27 five-star players in their top 150. Among all of them that have committed, only one (Dwayne Bacon to Florida State) is committed to a program that has not been to a Final Four in the past 20 years. Since Purdue has not been in 35 years (and counting) the Boilers are at a significant disadvantage.
The Boilers have done a lot of things right. Purdue is a consistent tournament team under Matt Painter (7 times in 9 years), has great facilities with the Mackey renovation, has a conference title, a couple of Sweet 16s, and a few good moments. Unfortunately, it only gets the recruits that can keep it holding steady right there. There has not been a major recruiting breakthrough, nor has there been a major national breakthrough such as a Final Four that can flip the recruiting chips in our favor. In 10 seasons, coach Painter has one (shared) conference title and two Sweet 16s. Nationally, that means exactly dick, because only success in March (and April) matters.
Don't get me wrong. We have very good players and there are probably about 300 Division I schools that would gladly trade places with us. It is a luxury going into every season knowing that the minimum expectation is an NCAA Tournament berth. Being a member of the Big Ten, however, means we expect more.
So what is it going to take to break through? Honestly, it is going to take a team that already has talent and makes some national noise by breaking through to a Final Four or by consistently making Sweet 16 and Elite 8 runs in March. Assuming A.J.Hammons stays for next season Purdue will have four four-star players according to Rivals: Hammons, Kendall Stephens, Basil Smotherman, and Isaac Haas. ESPN adds Ryan Cline, and Vince Edwards. That is a good start, but according to the recruiting services, we actually have less talent than in the two years we missed the NCAA Tournament here recently.
Still, is that less talent than other recent Final Four teams? Wichita State, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, and George Mason have all been Final Four teams with far less talent than us, let alone other teams. That's the nature of a single elimination tournament. Yes, talent gives you an excellent chance to make a run, but sometimes it takes luck. It may be unfair, but that is how college basketball teams are judged. Unless you play in April, you're nothing.
Purdue was very close to breaking through. Both the 2010 and 2011 teams had legitimate Final Four aspirations. They were undone by the Demon Wood of Xibalba ruining Robbie's (just as that team was coming together after LewJack has missed the start of the season) and the bizarre swoon that happened in 2011 after E'Twaun's 38 Special. Both of those teams were more than good enough to break though. Given how awful the teams in the 2011 Final Four played (the championship was atrocious basketball) Purdue very easily could have won the whole thing.
It did not happen though. Luck was not (and has very rarely been) on Purdue's side. Now we're back to where we were before the Baby Boilers arrived. We have good players, excellent facilities, and a decent coach. For there to be real change there has to be that breakthough, however. We have to be that six seed that gets hot, springs a few upsets, and gets to the final weekend. We should be used to it. The nature of the Purdue basketball program is built on having to outwork everyone else because of a talent deficiency. Perhaps there has never been success in March because even our best teams have been worn down by overachieving for months and has nothing left by the time the tournament comes around.
I do like what we have returning, however. Assuming Hammons returns we're going to have a deep team that does not lose much. There is still the possibility of a 5th year transfer and, if Jacquil Taylor gets healthy, he essentially feels like a new freshman to work with. We still should be good and have higher preseason expectations going into 2015-16 than going into 2014-15. This team also knows what it takes in terms of hard work after rebounding from mid-December. Does that mean we should book tickets for Houston next April? Of course not. We'll at least have a chance, perhaps better than this year, but it will be just another season unless we turn it into a special season.
So we keep waiting. We don't have the sugar daddy boosters to spend us into the stratosphere. We're going to have to out-work others and hope that there is the breakthrough because nothing changes until there is.