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The Buzz: This Year Might Be Different

This Purdue team has a different feel to it.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Last night I was marooned on the couch, battling the flu or some other seasonal virus that has had me pretty much out of it since Sunday. It was so bad that I retreated upstairs to get under the blankets with chills and general body aches to watch the second half in at least a modicum of comfort. Through a feverish and medicated haze I watched as Purdue had perhaps its worst offensive night in months. For the second straight home game our opponent came out on fire in the second half, too.

With 9:17 left Kevin Huerter hit yet another 3-pointer to cut it to 55-52. It was a frustrating moment. Maryland had a terrible first half and had Purdue’s offense been operating at it usual efficiency, they would have been buried long before now. That’s was not the case, however. Vince Edwards was taking breaks to go vomit. Isaac Haas was back to missing a ton of easy looks. Even P.J. Thompson was cold from outside with several open looks that he usually buries.

In short, Purdue was not as good as we had expected and should have put Maryland away early, but it did not. When Huerter cut it to three it looked like an old school Purdue loss was looming. With more than 9 minutes remaining their deficit had all been erased, and it looked like it was going to be the Iowa Rick Mount game all over again.

This team is different though. There was not much doubt that Purdue would win. I am not the only one that has felt this, and Mark Titus said it best in his column last week:

I noticed something weird happening as I watched Purdue play Michigan on Thursday night: I never doubted for a second that the Boilermakers were going to win. Michigan was running circles around Purdue’s defense and could hardly miss all night, and yet it never registered that Purdue losing was a possibility. For anyone who has read even a single page of any Purdue basketball history book, this should be shocking, as confidence is a rare commodity around West Lafayette. But there’s something undeniably special happening with the Boilermakers right now, and I get the sense that everyone associated with the program — players, coaches, fans, concession workers, whoever the hell the football coach is now — can feel it too.

The vibe in Mackey Arena reminds me of what it felt like to be a Cubs fan in 2016, when I was certain from Opening Day that Chicago was going to win the World Series. For those who have been a fan of a tortured team forever and constantly live in fear that the other shoe is about to drop whenever it starts doing well, there comes a point when you decide that enough is enough. You make up your mind that this time things will be different, that heartbreak be damned, you’re going all in and making yourself fully vulnerable. You throw middle fingers at the sports gods and the idea of jinxes and start telling yourself lies until you become convinced that they’re the truth. We’re going all the way. I can FEEL it. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. If it doesn’t happen this year, I swear I will never watch sports again.

He has a great point. This team has confidence right now, and confidence played a large role in winning that game last night. Purdue never did get truly on track offensively. We got into a war of attrition and basically said, “We’re going to throw it in to our big guy and try to foul everyone out because that is the only thing working right now.” It worked. On the next three possessions Haas drew a foul and converted at the line, Thompson hit a 3, and Haas converted on a dunk. In less than 90 seconds the lead was back up to 10.

Maryland didn’t go away. Bruno Fernando got loose and hit some big shots late. With four fouls he couldn’t defend Haas though. Purdue finished the job at the free throw line and by scoring either off of offensive rebounds or dunks by our bigs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win.

As recently as two years ago this game is probably a loss. As I mentioned above, the best example is the Rick Mount game against Iowa, where Purdue led by 17 at halftime and lost by 7 at home. In that game Jarrod Uthoff got hot and Purdue never found an answer. Last night we found one, as ugly as it was.

As a result, that confidence continues to build in West Lafayette. We have now won a school record 18 consecutive games. We have done it over a variety of opponents in a variety of ways, too. Let’s look at each:

Arizona – We blew out a team currently in the top 10 by 25 points. Arizona is likely getting a top 2 seed somewhere in the tournament and has lost just once since.

Louisville – Beat a solid team that just one year earlier had beat us up with its athleticism. This is the type of team we’ll see in round 2 or 3 in March and we were able to pull away late.

At Maryland – Won in a tough road environment by building a big lead and holding on. Maryland refused to quit and it is always tough to win on their floor.

Northwestern – With 1:16 left this was tied at 69 and Northwestern had the ball. Vince got a steal, Haas scored, Northwestern missed two chances thanks to an offensive rebound, and we hit 3 of 4 FTs. People forget Bryant McIntosh had a look at a three to tie with 4 seconds left.

Valparaiso – Absolutely ripped a previously undefeated team.

IUPUI – Struggled early, but blew out a low major.

Butler – We took control early and won going away against a team that has had our number for years.

Tennessee State – Blew out a low major

Lipscomb - Blew out a low major (and one that might get their conference’s autobid).

Rutgers – Took advantage of the worst offense in the conference for an easy home win.

Nebraska – Got ahead by about 8 early one and just held them there.

At Michigan – Led big early, fell behind, came back to tie it at 69, took advantage of two close calls, hit a free throw, and dodged a last second heave in a place we had lost 4 in a row.

At Minnesota – Lockdown defense and Vince Edwards went crazy.

Wisconsin – Hit a ton of three early and coasted

At Iowa – Went bombs away from three for a conference road record 20 made threes.

Michigan – Won a wild second half shootout in which neither team could play defense.

At Indiana – the opposite of Michigan: Neither team was shooting particularly well, but Indiana was playing smart in an amped up environment and we just made plays at the end when they did not.

Maryland – gritty, ugly, “We’re just going to foul you all out”.

Purdue has won so many ways this season it is hard not to have confidence. It has won by shooting the lights out. It has won with lockdown defense. It has won by being bigger and tougher. It has won by having more talent. It has won by getting advantageous calls at the right time. It has won with experience. It has won with youth (Carsen Edwards) leading the way. It has won. Period. I find it hilarious that some are arguing that we “need a good loss” so we don’t have “the burden of a long winning streak” over our heads in the tournament, as if the past 18 victories are a physical weight everyone has to play with Saturday at Rutgers. What’s wrong with letting it ride and seeing where this takes us?

Yes, the Purdue PTSD is there. It tells me we’re setting ourselves up for a crushing round 2 defeat to a 9 seed. Eventually, we’re going to lose. Yes, we’re even eventually going to lose in Mackey Arena. We’ve won 13 straight conference games, 18 straight overall, and 21 straight at Fort Mackey. I don’t know when any of those streaks will end, but we’re on a helluva ride right now and as Titus said, it is changing the culture here.

Maybe this finally is the year.

Or maybe I just cursed us and we’ll dicktrip at Rutgers Saturday.