I have long felt like a star-crossed sports fan. I have a nasty habit of intensively following teams that are often pretty good, but they can’t seem to break through to true greatness. Purdue fandom is well documented with its misses. For my Kokomo Wildkats, I have seen them play in a pair of state championship games in my lifetime, but they lost both. I am also a Cubs fan, so before 2016 that brought its own futility. Their World Series title presented me with a new sports white whale: A Purdue men’s basketball national championship.
This year I have tried to be guarded because of what I have dubbed as “Purdue PTSD”. It really is a condition. The product on the floor has been excellent, but years of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory have hardened my fandom. I feel like the last straw was the Little Rock game, where Purdue was dominant for 37 minutes before submitting the worst 3 minute stretch of basketball possible to derail yet another Final Four possibility. That broke my fandom in many ways.
This team is healing that though.
Look, I know there will be talk of jinxing them. It would be very Purdue to roll through the Big Ten, get a No. 1 seed, then get bounced in Round 2 of the NCAAs and get roundly mocked. My Purdue PTSD is even screaming at me that this column will cause it because I put it out into the universe. Around this time every year we hear the same arguments. “The NCAA Tournament is a terrible way to measure a team’s greatness”. “It’s all about matchups”. While true, they sound like the mating call of the loser and teams that struggle to find success in March. Winning in march is what truly great teams do, and maybe by addressing it head on we can break our hex.
Or, perhaps Purdue sports has melted my brain and I am just crazy with cross-jinxes and hexes.
For 37 years we have seen nothing but failure in March on some level. We have failed to reach the promised land of a Final Four, let alone a title. In a way, the NCAA Tournament is, indeed, a crapshoot. If Connecticut can win a championship as a 7 seed in 2014 while dozens of better overall teams have not. Being excellent over 35 games is certainly a better barometer of greatness than having one bad night in March, but the system is what it is.
And this team is good enough to finally break through.
Last night convinced me of that. I don’t know what will happen in the final 9 games, the Big Ten Tournament, or the NCAAs. We have anywhere from 11 to 18 games left to watch this team, but it is a special team and these remaining games need to be savored. We could hit a tailspin, lose the Big Ten, lose the first game in New York in the Big Ten Tournament, and get bounced in the NCAAs in round 1 for a disappointing final 11 games. We could win all 18 and go down as one of the greatest teams in NCAA history.
Yes, that is on the table. We’re that good, and that is what I want to talk about.
There is a sense of “if not this year, will this thing ever happen?” with this team, but last night I finally started to let my guard down. I think it happened because Michigan is one of the few teams in the country that has the personnel to challenge us matchup-wise. Mo Wagner’s ability to play on the perimeter and their offensive scheme to run screens and switches to draw our bigs from the basket create a unique problem. Last night I said they were laying the blueprint in how to beat Purdue. For a 10 minute stretch of the second half they were scoring at will. They negated Purdue’s size advantage on defense by pulling Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms away from the basket. This created open looks from three for a team that loves to shoot threes and it created driving lanes for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Michigan shot 60% form the floor, Abdur-Rahkman had a monster game of 26 points and hit 6 threes. The Wolverines scored 88 points and were so good offensively they knocked Purdue from the top 5 nationally on KenPom all the way to 10th.
Think about that for a moment. Purdue is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They do this without turning the game into a quagmire like Virginia. Through 21 games we had a top 3 defense and one game against Michigan was enough of an outlier to cause a seven spot drop. Michigan has figured out how to score on Purdue and they even did it in the dungeon of noise that is Mackey Arena. During that ridiculous stretch the crowd was trying to ramp higher and higher to will a stop and Michigan had an answer. If you watch the replay you heard this several times:
Crowd: “(ramping up as Michigan took possession after Purdue scored) hrrrrrrrrRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!! AWWWWwwwwwwww (ramping down as someone, usually Abdur-Rahkman, hit a three.)
Michigan was one of the few teams to answer Purdue and figure out our defense. Dylan over at UM Hoops explained just how good they were:
Michigan and Purdue are two teams that are completely ill-equipped to guard each other and that was never more clear than the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Michigan played its best offensive game of the season* on the road against the No. 3 ranked defense in the country. The Wolverines posted an impressive 72% effective field goal percentage, making 63% of their twos and 57% of their threes.
It’s hard to complain about turning the ball over on 17% of possessions, but Michigan’s giveaways seemed to come in the most critical spots. The Wolverines also rebounded 36% of their missed shots for 19 second chance points.
The offense might not have scored every possession down the stretch, but Michigan should beat any team in the country if it scores 1.35 points per possession. Prior to this game, the best offensive performance by a Big Ten team in a losing effort this year was Illinois scoring 1.17 points per possession against Iowa.
Big Ten teams that score 1.15 points per possession or better are 27-1 in league play. Before tonight, only three teams — Michigan State vs. Maryland, Ohio State vs. Maryland and Purdue vs. Iowa — had scored more than 1.35 points per possession in a league game.
Think about that. Michigan’s offense was so absurdly good it was in the top 5 of any offensive performance in all Big Ten play this year. They just happened to do it against one of the other top 5 offensive performances in conference play, and it was by far the best effort out of a losing team. It did this on the road against one of the nation’s best defenses, in one of the toughest road environments in the country. They scored 88 points when Purdue hadn’t given up more than 70 against anyone anywhere since December 1st at Maryland.
All that says Purdue probably should have lost this game, but it didn’t because the Boilers had an answer every time, and an already excellent offense got better. The first 10:50 of the second half was an absolute joy to watch if you’re a basketball fan. The teams didn’t just trade baskets, they traded haymakers. Purdue’s first two possessions of the half were made threes by Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson. The teams scored on a combined 13 of 15 possessions in the first five minutes alone. By the 9:10 mark the lead had changed hands 13 times on 13 straight possessions where a team made a basket. Michigan was playing out of its mind, much like how Minnesota (and specifically Nate Mason) played last year when the Gophers won in Mackey. It was basketball at its highest level and it was punctuated by a three from Vince Edwards with 9:10 left that tied the game 68-68.
Someone had to blink, and it was Michigan. The Vince three started a 14-2 run for Purdue that basically won the game. Purdue was able to go ahead 79-70, and even though Mo Wagner got five straight to cut it to 79-75 at the last media timeout Purdue got three straight stops (a missed layup on a break by Isaiah Livers and two turnovers) before Haas got a dunk with 1:58 left. Purdue hit 11 of 12 free throws in the last minute, even as Michigan was still hitting some insane shots.
This is why I am ready to believe. Michigan is a really good team. They present a unique matchup for many teams because of what Wagner can do and that matchup can specifically exploit Purdue. They had the athletes to get up and down and they were even a little bit quicker to loose balls for much of the night. They gave us their absolute best shot as a team that can normally give us trouble and we rose to the occasion to win.
I don’t think there is a ceiling to this team anymore. A second straight Big Ten championship? Anything less would be disappointing now. An undefeated Big Ten title? Unlikely, but it is certainly possible and maybe even probable if we get through the next five unscathed. 32-2 going into the NCAAs with the Big Ten Double? Again, unlikely, but not impossible. A No. 1 seed in March? It would be disappointing not to have that. Win the whole damn thing? Well, anything can happen, and we have our best chance maybe ever. If it doesn’t happen this year we’re just going to have to accept that if it does happen it is coming from a broken bracket 2000-like scenario.
Again, I am trying to be cautious. Five of the remaining nine games are on the road, including at Michigan State, who is really, really good. I am not even discounting Indiana on Sunday because strange things can happen in Assembly Hall. In 2010 Purdue was rolling and Indiana was in the midst of a 10-win season under year 2 of Crean. They still came within a missed Verdell Jones III of forcing overtime. Indiana was leading Duke, perhaps the team with the most raw talent in America, with five minutes left back in late November. I would love to deliver an unmerciful beating like they did to us in Mackey back in 2013, but I am also realistic.
Still, this Purdue team is beyond special. We don’t have any perceived offensive weakness. If you double Haas we have five guys hitting better than 40% from three and we’ll bomb away like we did on Wisconsin and Iowa. If you single Haas he’ll put on a clinic like he did with Wagner last night. If you have one of the most efficient outputs of any team this year we’ll just get better and drop 92 points. We’re not even confined to doing it only at Mackey, either. We’re 5-0 in true road games, one of just three teams in the country (Ohio State and St. Mary’s) undefeated in true road games.
Purdue is not just good at what it does, it is a hydra that constantly adapts even on the fly. We adapted enough last night to at least slow down Michigan slightly and get a handful of stops, and it was enough. We can attack offensively in pretty much anyway. We can attack in transition, all five guys can pass (how about Haas’ three assists last night?) and we’re perfectly comfortable taking 29 seconds of the shot clock to score. Seriously, how do you defend us? How do you make sure five guys are all having a bad shooting night AND a 7’2” 300 pound monster in the middle isn’t scoring?
We are good enough to win the whole damn thing, and Gregg Doyel agrees:
There is nobody in college basketball like No. 3 Purdue, and while that doesn’t guarantee Purdue a damn thing, it will make for a fascinating March that could extend into April, what with the Final Four being played March 31-April 2 in San Antonio. Nobody in college basketball seems to have the depth and breadth of offensive weaponry of Purdue, and for damn sure nobody has a weapon like Isaac Haas, a blunt-force basketball instrument who scored 24 points in 20 minutes against Michigan, adding six rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists.
And this is how good Purdue is:
Isaac Haas was double-teamed by Purdue’s last two opponents, Wisconsin and Iowa, who limited him to five points on six shots in 42 combined minutes – and Purdue won those games by a combined 62. Because Purdue is so good, it can beat you with a 7-2, 295-pound monster tied behind its back.
It is time to believe, and if it doesn’t happen I am really going to enjoy these last 11-18 games anyway.