It starts here, with something unfamiliar.
Somehow, expectations are both new and ghosts. The Purdue basketball program has a storied history. Its story is 23 Big Ten Championships, more than any other program. Its story is 49 All-Americans, including back-to-back years having a sophomore break out onto the national scene and finish as National Player of the Year finalists. Its playing hard and Mackey magic.
Its no national titles. Its no final four appearances since 1980. Its an upset loss to #12-seeded Arkansas Little-Rock in 2016. Its a 32 point loss to Kansas last year in the Sweet Sixteen.
Its getting close. But never getting there.
And yet they’re close. So close this year. A #2 in the East regional close. A 20-point favorite in their first round match-up against Cal-State Fullerton, that they covered, close. They have the fifth best odds to win the whole damn thing close. They’ve been ranked in the top-10 for nearly the entire year close. Longest winning streak of the season, with 19 straight wins, close.
But Vincent Edwards and his group of four graduating seniors knows that odds mean nothing. He knows upsets to higher seeds aren’t just a fun story, they’re narratives that will happen.
“... sometimes that 2, 3, 4 seed is not as happy to be there as that 15 or 16 seed. Because they earned their way there. Coach Painter preaches everybody earned their way there, so why can’t we just be as excited?”
Vincent knows it because he felt that shock in Denver against Little-Rock. Fans know it, hell, they anticipate it, they wait for it. Some could even say they savor it. Purdue fans aren’t just waiting for the other shoe to drop, they’re pulling at the strings to get it down.
Because at some point, if you stick around long enough, like Batman tells us, you become the villain.
The world of college athletics has never been so enigmatic. Entire rosters can change in one off-season. Pittsburgh just announced 8 players are leaving at one time. That’s most of your rotation. Kentucky and Duke fill out entirely new rosters with 5-star guys each year.
There’s not many teams that build slowly, that evolve and get better, that develop and shape their players. Well, let me rephrase that. There’s not many that do it while still mattering in the grand scheme of things. And by grand scheme I mean tournament success.
Pretty much there’s Jay Wright and Villanova... and Purdue. The only problem is, Purdue, to this point, with this class, has only cracked the glass ceiling while not being mid-major enough to fit into the glass slipper when they do find success.
Which it’s important to note. Being Jay Wright, before Jay Wright was National Champion Coach Jay Wright, wasn’t a good thing.
The phrase ‘doesn’t know how to win a big game’ becomes both an expletive in West Lafayette and a call to arms. While the ‘ainter’s’ stuff might be mostly noise at the far extremes, this belief that Coach Painter is incapable of coaching a team to the Final Four and definitely not a National Championship is very real.
So was the Jay Wright hate. You aren’t a champion until you are one, and if you’re not one, you’re never gonna.
Somehow, the narrative has flipped while reading the same. This Purdue team, the four seniors specifically, despite getting significantly better each year - even this year, when they lost one of the best two players in college basketball last year - wear their past March transgressions like scarlet letters on their chest.
When asked about what it’s like to be the favorites for once, to be picked to end up in the Final Four, one of those seniors, Dakota Mathias, offered seasoned insight.
“I try not to look at it. I mean we’ve had a lot of our ups and downs, especially in the tournament. Beaten in the first round and last year getting to the Sweet Sixteen. We know that any game you can get beat and all these teams deserve to be here. If you’re not prepared to play you are going to get beat.”
The sample size for college sports is so small. It’s that small during the part of your life where you’re most inconsistent - 18 to 22 years old. These seniors have gotten to the far end of that spectrum. They’ve grown in black and gold. Those past missteps? The upsets? The close losses? And even some of the bad wins? Those are building blocks, part of what helped get Purdue to these new heights.
These Purdue seniors have more heart breaks and let downs than most elite teams. But that’s not a bad thing. Vincent Edwards calls it an advantage.
“We have to let that show, the experience part of it and us having four seniors that start, which you don’t see normally in today’s game. We’ve just got to let that show. We’ve got to stay together and play together. I think that’s our biggest thing. We can’t really get worried about what’s going on.
We’ve been through adversity. We’ve been through any type of situation that you can just about think of, besides, of course, getting to an Elite Eight or a Final Four.”
When this March wraps up, don’t be surprised if these seniors are adding those to their experience, too.