We all cannot wait until November 13th, 2015. That is when a new and highly anticipated Purdue basketball season will tip-off. Unfortunately, we have all been here before. The 1988, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2010, and 2011 were all supposed to be THE year at one time during those respective seasons. For a program where simply making the NCAA Tournament is a minimum expectation (more on this later) we long for that Final Four and national recognition.
I have seen Big Ten championships from Purdue in 1987, 1988, 1994, 1995, 1996, and 2010. I have seen us win the Big Ten Tournament. I have seen Sweet 16 appearances seven times and even a pair of Elite 8 appearances. These are all great accomplishments, but they are what set us apart from the Michigan States, Dukes, North Carolinas, and other top notch programs. We are almost always good, sometimes great, but never elite.
The truth is that only march matters, so we begin each season hoping that this is THE year. We watch teams like George Mason, Butler, and Wichita State have their runs to the last weekend and think that just by getting into the tournament we have a chance. At the same time we wonder why even our best teams have fallen short.
As Boiled Sports likes to say: We are excellent at finding the banana peel. We have choked (1988), sustained a critical injury with terrible timing (2010) or simply fallen completely apart (2011) so often that it is almost expected at this point. That is why we head into the 2015-16 with expectations, but my guard is already up even in June. We have been here before, and the pain of seeing those expectations (I was once selling Project Houston shirts here in August!) go up in flames. I am not alone in often waiting for The Other Shoe when something good seems like it is about to happen. It is now almost a palpable karma when I watch Purdue play any sport.
So what should our expectations be? How should we Purdue fans find the balance between excitement and guarding ourselves for heartbreak?
Every Season: Reach the NCAA Tournament
With 68 teams reaching the postseason and the way Purdue regularly gets at least two top 100 players in every recruiting cycle we should make the tournament Every. Single. Year. That is the bare minimum expectation. There are too many advantages that Purdue has over a smaller program:
- Playing in the Big Ten means that finishing in the top half almost always has you in the discussion for a berth.
- Purdue always gets early season exposure with an exempt tournament invite.
- Purdue always has the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Crossroads Classic as quality non-conference games to build a resume.
- The exempt tournament usually gives at least one quality opponent if not two (think BYU, Oklahoma State, Villanova, etc.).
- We don't have to go on the road unless we feel like it, so we can pad some easy wins in the confines of Mackey Arena like every other major conference team in the country does.
Look at the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Both years Purdue was under .500 in the regular season, but still won 15 games. We viewed it as disastrous, but there were enough close losses that, if you changes a few possessions, can flip the whole season around:
- Purdue loses 70-65 at home to an NCAA team in Bucknell without Terone Johnson. The Boilers trailed by a point with 10 seconds left and had plenty of chances.
- The Villanova loss in New York was questionable at best, as D.J. Byrd is called for a flagrant foul as he is being assaulted by three opposing players.
- A close loss at home to Xavier comes as Purdue misses every three-pointer it takes.
- The Eastern Michigan loss by 3 was an affront to basketball.
- A tight home loss to Michigan comes by 5 points.
- Purdue lays an absolute second half turd in blowing a 10-point halftime lead to Washington State in a loss.
- A double overtime loss at Northwestern comes as a result of missed free throws and poor guard play.
- An overtime home loss to Michigan has our hearts ripped out by the son of our best player ever.
- Purdue looked downright awful in bad losses at Penn State and at home to Northwestern, teams we should beat in NCAA-caliber years.
So even in two "bad" years, Purdue was not that far off. We get the talent to be an NCAA Tournament team almost every year. It honestly comes down to what clicks and what doesn't.
Every 4-5 years: Big Ten title
We do have the most Big Ten championships after all. There have been ebbs and only one such title in the last 20 years, but Matt Painter has proven that his team can compete for the Big Ten crown with top four finishes in 2008, 2011, and 2015 in addition to his 2010 title. Winning the Big Ten, or at least coming close in the coming season, should be a reasonable goal. This is one of coach Painter's most talented and balanced teams. Even the loaded 2010 and 2011 teams were awfully thin in the post. That problem is solved this year
Objectively, winning the Big Ten in 2016 will be tough. Maryland is loaded, Michigan State and Wisconsin are always going to be tough. Indiana might win every game 120-115, but only if they can play consistent offense. There are also plenty of solid middle of the pack teams with enough talent to beat anyone on a given night. Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, and Northwestern are going to be tough outs every night.
Winning the Big Ten in any year, let alone this year, comes down to three things:
- Who you play in an unbalanced schedule
- Defending your home court
The ultimate goal: A Final Four and National Title
I made no secret about the expectations for the 2010-11 season as soon as the 2009-10 season ended: I expected Purdue to win the National Championship. Some people wanted an outright Big Ten title first, but had Robbie Hummel stayed healthy that was the goal. It was our best chance in decades with a deep, talented, and experienced team that had already been through the wars. The stage was set to not only break through, but change the entire history and culture of our program.
Even after Rob got hurt again that team was awfully good. When we made Ohio State wilt while E'Twaun Moore took Mackey Arena to a higher plane of existence anything seemed possible. Watching Butler and Connecticut throw up brick after brick after brick in the 2011 title game was even more frustrating because the Purdue from that Ohio State game would have wiped the floor with either of them by 20 points. Everything as there, even a broken bracket and weak Final Four to take the title. It seemed as every exterior force fell into place for Purdue after Rob's second injury, but inexplicably it all fell apart.
The coming season is the closest we have come to reaching that level where a Final Four and National title could be a realistic expectation. You could argue that Purdue has a one-year window here too, as losing Hammons and Davis from this squad changes a lot of things about the makeup and chemistry of a unique lineup. As we enter the season almost everyone has a place and a job. It appears to be one of those teams where the pieces are in place to make the unit greater than its individual parts. You have NBA-level talent (Swanigan and Hammons for sure, Edwards and Haas possibly), shooters (Mathias, Cline, and Stephens), an experienced point guard (Hill), a solid young point that works hard (Thompson), versatile role players that can play multiple spots (Smotherman, Davis, Edwards), solid defenders (Hammons & Davis), and even promising freshmen that add depth and toughness (Weatherford and Taylor).
The mix is there. The excitement is genuine. Playing in Houston in early April seems like it could actually happen if everything comes together. A good regular season can give Purdue a decent seed, and maybe, just maybe, We can put it all together for 4-6 games when it matters most. Unfortunately, I am a Purdue fan, burned by 2011, The Fumble, That Night in the Barn, The Gary Baseball Regional, The volleyball Elite 8 vs. Texas, and countless other heartbreaks. Being guarded is my natural state.