Tonight starts the Drive to 24.
Strangely, the thing I am most excited to hear when I go to Mackey is the introduction video, as they had to get a hold of Gene Keady to change his line to “The home of 23 Big Ten Championships”. The expectations for this team are as high as they have been since the 2010-11 season (before Robbie Hummel got hurt again). I am hoping we need to contact him again in the offseason to change it to “The home of 24 Big Ten Championships”.
In most seasons the minimum expectation is an NCAA Tournament berth. Purdue, as a program, has grown to the point where an NCAA bid is expected each season because of the amount we have invested and the talent we are able to recruit. How many programs can say that? By virtue of being in the Big Ten we know before every year that something like 21 wins overall and 10 in the conference will likely be enough to get into the Tournament, and that it is an achievable goal. At least 75% of programs in the country can’t say that. For Purdue, we have been to three straight NCAA Tournaments and 18 in the past 25 years. It’s an expectation, and those 7 seasons in the last 25 where we failed to reach the Tournament? Well, they were near disasters.
But this year is different. We’re the defending Big Ten champion. Yes, we lost an All-American and first rounder, but we return four seniors and a dynamic sophomore that is among the top players in the country. We are developing depth, but we have more experience than almost any team in America. That raises the expectations even higher. Last year we won the Big Ten and reached the second weekend in March. There is no reason we can’t contend for another title and once again be playing on that second weekend.
Winning a regular season Big Ten title is hard. In fact, I would almost argue it is harder than reaching a Final Four. Yes, the Final Four is the pinnacle of the sport. Programs are judged on reaching that level, but for five straight seasons now a 7 seed or lower has gotten that far. Obviously It helps to have a good regular season record, but out of the 20 Final Four teams in the last five years, 6 (Wichita State in 2013, Connecticut and Kentucky in 2014, Michigan State in 2015, Syracuse in 2016, and South Carolina in 2017) were 7 seeds or worse. Sure, it helps to have a good seed, but sometimes you need to just get into the tournament, get a good draw, and get hot.
It is frustrating to see that run of lower seeds getting hot, even if they are some of the big name programs in the sport. They have the talent to just get hot for four games at the right time, but it always makes me frustrated because Purdue never seems to be that team. That’s why I view winning a regular season Big Ten title as such a tough achievement. it is excellence sustained and earned over 18 games (soon to be 20). It is going into 9 raucous venues and winning. It is a grueling two and a half month grind earned in places like Bloomington, East Lansing, College Park, and more.
This Purdue team has done it, and it can do it again.
The ultimate prize, one that has eluded Purdue for 37 years, is the Final Four, however. It eluded Gene Keady for 25 seasons as one of the best coaches in league history. It has prevented Purdue from moving up a level in the eyes of college basketball from “pretty good program” to “This program can challenge for championships.” It has been terribly frustrating to see George Mason, VCU, South Carolina, Wichita State, et al. go so far while Purdue continues to fall short, but here we are.
That’s why the time is now.
This specific Purdue team is as loaded as we will be for years. Next season will very likely be a step back because we lose so much this year with four really good seniors. Purdue is not loaded with first round one-and-dones like a Kentucky or Duke, but we’re loaded with pretty good players who have played a lot of college basketball together. NO ONE in a power conference starts four seniors anymore, but Purdue will. In fact, the last time I think we started so many seniors together was 2000 when we rode a 6 seed to the Elite 8 and came up just short against Wisconsin. Many smaller conference teams start 4 seniors and such situations are their moonshot to make the tournament and spring an upset. Given that Purdue is int he Big Ten, it should be our moonshot for even more.
We have everything set before us. We have talent. We have experience. We have a non-conference schedule that offers a chance against three preseason top 15 teams. Getting even two of those would be excellent RPI and KenPom fodder for seeding purposes in March. By beating a Louisville, Villanova, or Arizona not only do we gain confidence that we can win an Elite 8-type of game, we get a nice bonus that can get us out of the 4/5 seed purgatory.
Of course there is the Biggie factor. He was an excellent individual talent and there is no doubt we would be a top 5 team if he had returned. Strangely though, Purdue can still be really, really good because now it has to be different. Think back to last year. The games where we relied on Biggie in the closing seconds (Villanova, at Iowa, at Nebraska) were losses. Games where we had to go elsewhere (at Maryland, at Indiana) we prevailed.
This will be a different Purdue team. We’re not going to clog the post with two lumbering bigs anymore. The “Biggie at the 5” offense that worked so well last year will now be permanent. When Isaac Haas isn’t on the floor we’ll be offering a look where everyone can shoot and everyone can pass. We’ll offer a different look defensively, but we did just fine last season after losing two strong defensive players.
I could go through and pick each and every game, but I think it is easier just to look at some of the bigger matchups. I think we’re winning, at minimum, 24 games before the Big Ten Tournament. That’s a 24-7 record before the postseason. I think we’re going to get a top 3 Big Ten finish and a top 4 seed somewhere in March. I think we’re going undefeated at home. Yes, undefeated. We have three games at home against preseason top 25 teams: Louisville, Northwestern, and Minnesota. Louisville is a mystery with their offseason scandal, Northwestern is legitimately good, and I think Minnesota is a tad overrated. We’re going to be favored in every home game, and Mackey Arena needs to deliver as the dungeon of noise that it is.
As far as away from home, I think we get a nice road win at Marquette on Tuesday. The Bahamas tournament will help decide Purdue’s seed in March. If we beat Villanova in the semifinals that is basically a +1 for seeding when it comes to ranking us in March. Beat Villanova and Arizona? That’s basically a +2 for seeding.
And it is because of the Bahamas tournament that we will now how good this team is very, very early. We have a five game stretch that could be Villanova, Arizona, Louisville, at Maryland, and Northwestern in the span of 11 days. That’s as tough as it gets for anyone in the country. That’s the span that shows if a team has the chops to make a March run. This team is good enough to win four of those.
I think we beat Butler, our in-state nemesis, in Indianapolis at the Crossroads Classic for another solid non-conference win. I think we lose at Michigan (a terrible matchup for us of late), at Minnesota or Wisconsin, and at Michigan State in conference play. I think 15-3 in the league might be enough for another Conference title, too, even if it is shared with a really good Michigan State team.
Then there is March. As I said above, we’re not going to have as good of as shot as we do this year for some time. Since we’re not a one-and-done program it is our nature to develop really good (not elite, but really good) players to where they are juniors and seniors that can do a lot. It will probably the take the following two seasons to rebuild to this level of talent and experience again, so the time is now to strike in March. As always, it will be about matchups and the draw, but getting out of the 4/5 purgatory and giving a 1 seed a week to prepare for us will help a lot. Let’s get at least a 3 seed, avoid a 1 seed for as long as possible, and see what happens.
So that’s my prediction: 27-4 regular season, 15-3 in the B1G, in the race for the B1G title, and a top 3 seed.
The time is now.