It felt important. That’s my point. The Purdue versus Ohio State game had its obvious importance to the B10 title race. If Purdue won, there wouldn’t be a race. They’d have a 2-game lead on Ohio State and Michigan State, with only a road game to East Lansing looming as a potential stumble. (As of right now, Kenpom has Purdue as at least an 81% chance to win the last four games of their schedule.)
As it stands, Ohio State came into West Lafayette and won in Mackey Arena, snapping a 19-game win streak and giving Purdue its first conference loss of the year. This makes the Buckeyes and Boilers tied at the top of the B10 schedule, both with a one game lead over Michigan State.
Now, the race is a full out sprint. The winner of Michigan St. and Purdue on Saturday will be the conference statement. Even with the loss to Ohio State, both teams have made strong cases for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But Ohio State is the team that controls its destiny. They will have two difficult road games to test them - @ Penn State and @ Michigan. If they can get through both of those games, they’ll likely go into Assembly Hall on February 23rd with a chance to wrap up the B10 title.
But for Purdue, the game against Ohio State wasn’t about chasing their 24th B10 title. It was about cementing themselves as a national contender. It’s a little strange to think that a 19-game win streak couldn’t do that all on its own, but we are dealing with a fragile fan base. A program that has existed in that middle-ground - not quite the little brother, but certainly not a giant.
A win over the Buckeyes would have alleviated a lot of in-grown concern. Instead, the Boilermakers dusted off an old script and blew a double-digit second half lead, and lost in as heart breaking a fashion as if Shakespeare himself came up with the idea. Twice Purdue forced Ohio State into difficult shots and twice they failed to grab the rebound.
For most of the game, Purdue’s strength showed itself. They were relentless with feeding Isaac Haas in the post in the first half. Every Ohio State big was in foul trouble. Coach Holtmann was forced deep into his bench, putting in freshman Kyle Young who had played a combined 11 minutes in the last six games.
When the big guy wasn’t doing it for Purdue, Carsen Edwards was. The sophomore set a new career-high with 28 points. On a night where the runaway favorite for B10 player of the year was on the court, the little guard from Texas was the best player in the country. He knocked down 4 of his 6 three-pointers, drew 9 free throw attempts while making 8, stole the ball twice, and had 3 assists while turning the ball over just once.
Keita Bates-Diop on the other hand had to work for every one of his 18 points. It took him 17 shots, most of them difficult mid-range jumpers thanks to Dakota Mathias’ constant harassing of the much bigger Diop.
At the 10:17 mark in the second half, Purdue was up 53-39. Their win probability 98.2%. Mackey was on fire.
But Ohio State had 4 players in double-digits. Purdue had just 4 players score in total.
Purdue’s bench took only one shot. While it’s true, most of Purdue’s players come in for defense — Haarms, Eastern, and Eifert - Cline is one of the better shooters in the nation. His main purpose is to be a sixth man and scorer off the bench. He did not attempt a shot.
Purdue could have probably survived except their usually reliable P. J. Thompson took and missed all 5 of his shots, each one from the 3-point line. He has been hovering around 50% from three most of the year. It is only his second scoreless game in the last three years as a starter. (The other game he was puking before, during, and after.)
The collapse was one more on top of an embarrassing collection of riches in that category. This freshman class led Cincinnati in their first NCAA game 56-49 with 48 seconds on the clock. Cincy had a 1.1% win probability at that point. Cincy would win in overtime. The following year, Purdue was up 63-49 against Arkansas Little Rock in the first round again with 4:25 left in the second half. Little Rock had just a .4% chance of winning when they forced two over times before upsetting their sophomore efforts. In last year’s Big Ten Tournament, Purdue led 66-64 with 21 seconds left and P.J. Thompson stepping to the line with a chance to ice it. Michigan’s chances to win was a robust 8.4%. They would win in overtime.
This year’s team was working on taking care of those ghosts. They held on against Louisville, at Michigan, at IU, at Maryland, at home against Michigan, and at Rutgers. All close games, all games mostly controlled by Purdue that could have found the 1% and slipped through their fingers.
But they hadn’t. For 19 straight games this Purdue team found the resolve, the free throws, and the defensive stops. Until they couldn’t find one last reb
It’s a complicated thing, believing in something. Sometimes it feels like this team is an addict. Can they help themselves? Just when you think they’ve gotten themselves clean, they forget to box out and they lose a heart breaker they had no business losing.
The Ohio State game was supposed to be a special game. 20 in a row. It was supposed to say that this Purdue team had grown. That they were different.
Now they’ll have to reset. Thankfully or not, they’ll get a chance at redemption soon enough but this time without their support system behind them.