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NCAA Tournament: Purdue Basketball - Small Ball, Big Hearts

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Purdue’s definition has changed with the loss of Isaac Haas. But their identity stays the same: next man up.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Purdue Boilermakers vs. Cal State Fullerton Titans Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The bombshell of Isaac Haas possibly being able to play after initially being ruled out is making almost as big a sound on social media as the big man’s body and elbow did hitting the hardwood on Friday.

But for the Purdue players, there is only one mood:

“Next man up, ya know. Injuries are a part of sports. It’s the worst things about sports,” PJ Thompson says in the Piston’s locker room, on a Friday that saw Haas’s diagnosis go from absolutely out to expected to be out but dressing by Coach Matt Painter after Haas practiced with the team that morning thanks to a brace on his injured right arm and elbow.

The senior point guard who has played his entire career with Isaac Haas, all 135 of his career games, says this almost coldly, because that’s what this team is. Cold and calculated, focused on one goal, the same goal they’ve had all year, the one those four seniors have had for four years.

In some ways, the same goal that Purdue basketball has had for years now. It’s not as simple as just winning basketball games. It’s about changing the narrative of the Purdue program.

“The previous stuff has nothing to do with us but it’s funny – well it’s not funny – but it’s weird how it happens. How it happens again on us. It sucks because that happened to Robbie… It’s just tough but like I said. Injuries are a part of sports. It’s about having that next man up mentality. That pro mentality, to come back and be stronger.”

While fans and sports writers have reason to stare at the macro, it is the micro that concerns the players and Coach Painter. They have a basketball game to be played, a rematch with the Butler Bulldogs and a hole to fill on the inside.

A lot will fall on Matt Haarms, the 7’3” Dutch sensation, who offers length and mobility on offense that Haas has never provided.

“One thing we do have is Matt who can run, he can run really well. He can get up the court really well as well. We just have to push the tempo a little more,” Nojel Eastern says in the same locker room, a few minutes later and a few seats down from PJ.

This is all true. Haarms adds a dynamic to this team. Purdue almost has two teams: the one with Haas on the floor, post-centric and punishing, and the one with Haarms on the court, fast and deadly with the ball moving briskly from side to side.

When I asked Ryan Cline if it should help having the two different styles of offense all season, he agreed.

“100 percent. I feel like having us run a little bit more motion could be good for us. Its just kinda getting into that offensive flow. I’m not saying seeing Isaac score the ball isn’t good because it is. But just being able to kind of move and create our own shots and get to that second or third action will be helpful for us. Hopefully in the long run it’ll be good for us, too.”

But Haas is an easy bucket every time he touches the ball down low. He’s so big that he might as well be nicknamed the sun, Purdue’s entire offense at times moves and works based off the tremendous amount of gravity the big man pulls in.

And there’s no one else like Haas in college basketball. There’s no way to replicate what he offers. Instead, Purdue will have to take the tarp off the Jacquil Taylor Express and see if his strong showing in the World University Games can be replicated in the NCAA tournament after getting almost no run all season.

But more likely, Purdue will need to rely on both Nojel Eastern and Ryan Cline to show off their versatility and ability to play bigger.

Ryan Cline knows it’s a possibility that he could see time away from the wing on defense, “I could see a little bit of four. I know I played a little bit of four, I remember, in the penn state game. So I could see myself playing a little bit of four. But I don’t know what Coach Painter is really thinking there.”

Despite being a guard/wing, and known for his perimeter shooting, he’s confident he can keep up in the post against a tough potential match-up with do-everything power forward Kelan Martin, who not only scores the basketball at a tremendous rate but is one of the best defensive rebounders in the country.

“I definitely don’t have a problem playing against bigger guys. I feel like I’m a decent post defender. I feel like I do my job from a boxing out perspective. I feel like I’m tough enough to guard those guys. I don’t see a problem with it at at all.”

Besides the Junior guard Ryan Cline, expect Nojel Eastern to also potentially play some four for Purdue. The Evanston native is an oddity on the court, a 6’6” freshman point guard who has the length, strength, and athleticism to guard anyone on the court for stretches. He also might be the team’s best rebounder. He leads the team in offense rebound rate according to kenpom.

He also knows its a weakness for the team time to time, and so you’ll often see him inside, battling with other team’s bigs for boards. “We struggle a little bit rebounding so I just try to do that. Take the pressure off the bigs a little bit… I just try to do what I can to help them out.”

It’ll be more important than ever for Eastern to fill in the cracks on the glass Sunday. Butler’s Tyler Wideman is one of the nation’s best offensive rebounders, 38th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, and Isaac Haas had been rebounding better than he ever had in his career. He was averaging almost 9 rebounds a game in his last 4, including 10 rebounds in just 15 minutes of action before going out with the fractured elbow against Cal St. Fullerton.

But the freshman isn’t panicking. If anything, he’s taken an eerily similar view to that of his senior.

He’s not worried about more minutes or less, his role or anyone else’s. He’s just worried about the man next to him.

“I just take it step by step. I’m a basketball player. We’re all basketball players so we have to just step it up for one another. My goal is to just play for the man next to me and not play for myself. So that’s whats I’ll continue to do whether I have to play more minutes or less minutes…. And we’re just gonna have to keep fighting even harder because we have a big part of our group that’s down right now.”

A big part to replace with big shoes, but this team believes they’ll be able to fill them with small ball and big hearts.