We have all had a few days to digest the season-ending loss to Kansas. I know it did not help that the Jayhawks looked like a completely different team against Oregon on Saturday. Also, with two schools making their first Final Four (and one of them being a shock 7 seed in South Carolina) and Oregon makings its first Final Four since 1939 it makes things even more frustrating.
It is becoming an annual thing where some lower seeded team gets hot at the right time and stumbles into a Final Four. Last year it was Syracuse, who p0robably should not have even been in the tournament. Two years ago it was Michigan State making it as a 7 seed. In 2014 the title game itself was 7 seed Connecticut over 8 seed Kentucky. In 2013 you had 9 seed Wichita State make it. In 2011 8 seed Butler played 11 seed VCU.
More and more this is showing how the NCAA Tournament is a crapshoot. The East bracket this year was expected to be defending champion and no. 1 overall seed Villanova vs. preseason no. 1 and tournament favorite Duke. Neither team even made it out of round 2. Pretty much there are two ways to get to the Final Four:
1. Recruit a team of multiple five-star versatile athletes who can shoot and drive to the basket. Have a defensive-minded big man in the middle. Crush all competition on your way to a No. 1 seed. Ride said No. 1 seed to the Final Four.
2. Hope like hell this is the year random chance gives you favorable matchups and you get red hot for four straight games.
As a Purdue fan, it can become frustrating. The Boilers have generally been a decent program for the last 37 years. We’ve have good seasons and bad ones, but for 26 of the 37 seasons since our 1980 Final Four appearance we have at least been in the NCAA Tournament. In 20 of those 26 appearances we have even won at least one game. Unfortunately, we’re 0 for 26 in Final Fours in that time, and we have watched teams like George Mason, VCU, Wichita State, and now South Carolina (who had all of 4 NCAA wins before this tournament and NONE since 1973) reach the promised land while we continue to wait.
We have missed it both ways, too. In 1988, 1994, and 1996 we were the No. 1 seed. In 1998, 2000, and 2011 we got the fabled “broken bracket” where upsets cleared our path ahead of us only to have us lose. In 1999 we even got the “got hot at the right time despite barely getting in” with wins over 7 seed Texas and 2 seed Miami to make a surprise Sweet 16 run. It’s maddening, really.
All Purdue can do going forward is turn in regular seasons like this one or better and hope that each season is “The Year”. With lower seeds making Final Four runs annually it seems, all you need to do sometimes is just make the tournament. Purdue has proven it can do that with little issue. From there, it is matchups and hoping you get hot. This year it was Kansas that got white hot for a 16 minute stretch that blew open a close game. They took a 2 point game with 16 minutes left and turned it into the biggest blowout of the later rounds of the tournament because they have a ton of talent and that talent started playing out of its mind.
Aside from that, however, it was a successful season, so let’s look back and hand out some awards.
Team MVP: Caleb Swanigan
This is a no brainer. When you’re an all-American, finalist for National Player of the Year, and a human double-double it is easy to pick an MVP. It seems very likely that Caleb will head off to the NBA and I don’t blame him. He still has a lot to work on, but he would get drafted if he came out and that means he can work on it next season while getting paid very well with professional level coaching. He shattered Purdue’s single-season rebounding record with 436 and finished up just six points shy of 1,000 for his career. He led the team in points, rebounds, blocks, (and turnovers), and was third in assists. His shooting percentages were also an impressive 52.7% from the floor, 44.7% from three, and 78.1% from the line. In the very small chance he comes back next season he will lay waste to the Big Ten.
Most Improved: Dakota Mathias
Sure, you could argue that Swanigan was also the most improved because he did make an incredible lap, but Mathias was the metronome behind the scenes before struggling in the last two tournament games. Dakota nearly doubled his scoring average, added 1.5 assists per game to his total, picked up almost two more rebounds per game, played 13 more minutes per night, and became the team’s best defender. His three-point percentage went up from 38.6% to 45.3% and at one point he was toying with 50% from three very late into the season.
Freshman of the Year: Carsen Edwards
Yes, I know that he was the only freshman on the entire roster aside from Tommy Luce, but Carsen had an excellent first year. He averaged in double figures and often played fearless basketball. There were freshman moments to be sure. His shot selection leaves much to be desired, but if he can improve his offensive efficiency next season he will be in a great spot for 2018-19 when it becomes his team for the most part. Let’s also give him credit for his fearlessness for hitting the game-winning free throws at Maryland.
Most Disappointing: Basil Smotherman
I think we all expected more from Basil, especially coming out of a voluntary redshirt. Few players will do that in the middle of their careers, but Basil did and, at the beginning, it looked like it might pay off. It appeared he had added the three-pointer to his arsenal (he shot 30.8% there after being 3 of 33 for his career beforehand). Basil was expected to use his athleticism to be a lockdown defender and energy guy off the bench. He even had 13 in the win over Arizona State, but by the Big Ten season he was mostly pushed out of the rotation. He scored 7 points in 33 minutes over the course of six conference games and was kicked off the team in late January. He looked so good against Villanova (5 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal in 21 minutes) that he downfall was shocking. The Kansas game showed how much we needed his type of athleticism, so it is even more disappointing it did not work out.
Game of the Year
Purdue 73, Maryland 72 at Maryland
It is safe to say that Purdue stole this ballgame. With 13:45 left Purdue trailed 52-40 and looked done. Maryland even had several possessions to add to the lead, but were unable to do so. Ryan Cline hit a three with 12:17 left to start a key 11-0 run to get back in it. Purdue held the Terps without a field goal for the final 7:38 and Carsen Edwards hit two free throws with three seconds left for the win.
Second Best Game of the Year
Purdue 86, Indiana 75
I almost put the Villanova game here because even though it was a loss, it was a highly entertaining and hard fought basketball game between two very good teams. Instead, we have to celebrate clinching our record-breaking 23rd Big Ten regular season title at home against our bitter rivals and banishing them to the NIT. Two days later Iowa would beat Wisconsin in Madison to make it our first outright title in 21 years. Say what you will about the Kansas game and the way the season ended, the goal of the regular season was to win the Big Ten title and Purdue did it by two clear games. The 21 year wait between outright championships was the longest since 1940-69.
Worst Game of the Year
Kansas 98, Purdue 66
For 24 minutes it was pretty good. Purdue was only down 2 and had hte ball before the Jayhawks went on a 45-15 run int he final 16 minutes. How bad was it? If you added the margin of six of Purdue’s seven losses (Villanova, Louisville, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnsota, and Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament) Purdue lost those six games by a total of 31 points. It was an uncharacteristic meltdown that wasn’t seen all season. In fact, nothing to that point in that game made it look like a 32 point drubbing was going to happen. It was a terrible time for the worst 16 minutes of basketball all season.
What We Need Going Forward
Despite the protestations we saw on Twitter over the weekend (including some who said Purdue would be lucky to be a second-tier Big Ten team next year) the future looks very bright. It seems likely that Purdue will return at least 6 of its top 7 players. We will have four senior starters in the lineup to begin the 2017-18 season. From a team that averaged 80 points per game we will return 59.6 of that. Through improvement and the incoming freshman we can make up a good portion of that difference.
That is all assuming Caleb Swanigan is off to the NBA. It is a healthy assumption. I think there is maybe a 1 % chance he returns. He, along with Vince Edwards and probably Isaac Haas will likely declare for the NBA draft for the evaluations they need. It is almost certain Edwards and Haas will return for their senior seasons. For Swanigan, I think it is almost certain he stays in.
If Swanigan is not back Purdue has to distribute his 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. It will likely do so by committee. One benefit to Swanigan’s departure is that it forces Purdue to go to different looks. That can be a benefit. This past season Purdue lost A.J. Hammons and got better because it diversified the offense when Swanigan was on the floor at the five. Purdue was still a post-oriented team, but it did not always need a lumbering center on the floor.
A similar thing could happen if Swanigan goes to the League. Purdue will then become even less post-oriented, and that might be good. Kansas showed that if you denied our post entry game we became pedestrian in a hurry. We didn’t have anyone that could attack the basket against them and we resorted to jacking up threes and praying. Without Caleb guys like the Edwards’ and newcomers Aaron Wheeler and Nojel Eastern will have value as slashers to the basket. We’ll still have Haas as an efficient scorer on the block. He’ll still be an offensive force, but for the first time Purdue will look completely different without him, Hammons, or Swanigan on the floor. If that opens things up to a more athletic and attacking Purdue I am all for it.
And Purdue should be more athletic. Give Carsen another year and he will be better. Vince Edwards needs to play like a First Team all-Big Ten selection. The athleticism of Eastern, Wheeler, and Eden Ewing will only help. Mathias will still be here. Ryan Cline will still be sniping. P.J. Thompson will continue to be the unsung kid who will hit a big shot or two ever game while giving you a steady hand in the backcourt.
And therein lies the challenge for Coach Painter. I think a reasonable goal for this season was a Big Ten title and reaching the Sweet 16 because once you get that far, anything can happen. You can run into a No. 1 seed like Kansas who goes nuts or you can benefit from the broken bracket like South Carolina. With the experience Purdue has returning next year, plus the athletes it gets, the key is to build from here and not settle.
What Purdue did this season needs to be the foundation for more. There is no reason this team can’t repeat even without Swanigan because it will be one of the most experienced in the conference. The league should be tougher. Penn State and Iowa were very young teams that had strong showings this year. Michigan State still has Tom Izzo and brings in a great recruiting class. Michigan and Wisconsin will still be tough. Minnesota made great strides. It is never easy to win the Big Ten, but Purdue can do it again next season and if the league as a whole looks better that will help in seeding.
What is critical for 2017-18 is that the incoming freshmen will be able to develop without having to carry a heavy load. they can gain valuable experience in Taiwan at the World University Games in August that will give them a leg up. They can also learn from four seniors that will help them transition to 2018-19 when they have to take over. This is an important year for maintaining the foundation that has been built the last three seasons.
I think repeating as Big Ten champs and at least making the Second Weekend is critical. Once there, who knows, again.