The NCAA tournament had been working out better than I could have hoped. Not only did Purdue get a decent draw, the road to the elite eight avoided the worst of match-ups and would likely end with a rematch against a Villanova team Purdue played close just a year ago, but they also drew a relatively close site in the East Region, Detroit, and that meant a weekend in Ann Arbor with my buddy Juan, who also writes for this site.
That means no money spent on hotel and just an hour commute to Detroit each morning. It also meant I had a colleague with me to help with writing game-wraps and covering Purdue’s potential fairy tale run to March redemption. It meant I had someone to make idle chat with over media food, and have someone make the long trek down into the media room and get me water at half time when I was too lazy.
It meant I had someone to silently cheer with when Purdue won. Which they did in their first game, by a lot, against Cal St. Fullerton. Something that we were both smiling about when he decided to walk around the arena as the Butler game was going on and I was sitting down to write a column.
He was someone to share the pain that would soon come from a Purdue release. Isaac Haas would be done for the tournament after fracturing his elbow on a fall late in the second half.
I was happier than ever to have a colleague around at this point. Make no mistake about it, we were both intending to get very drunk. We declared this to the rest of the Hammer and Rails writers, to twitter, and to ourselves and everyone around us as we got up and put our coats on, ready to brave the walk back to his car in the MGM Grand’s casino parking lot.
We made it back to his apartment a mile from the heart of the Wolverine’s campus and both walked into his apartment and took a couch. Our plan of getting drunk until it stopped hurting turned into what normally happens to dudes our ages, sadly enough. We both sat back, turned on the NCAA game currently playing, and napped. Napped hard. Emotional exhaustion and an early morning and old age (I just turned 30) had caught up with me.
And then it got weird. We both woke up at relatively the same time, my moving off the couch stirring Juan, the sadness still fresh and blurry in my head.
And then someone slid into our dm’s. A strange occurrence. A scary occurrence. Always fearing an unwanted advance or whatever other crazy twitter might have waiting, the messages were read hurriedly, with a sense of doom, but finished instead with hope.
Weird, hard to verify words formed and followed each other. Haas might not be done. As much as 50/50 this source said. Purdue brought in the Detroit Lions medical staff. There was mention of a Watt like arm contraption that would allow him to play.
We were skeptical. Unbelieving. Both because of the unknown nature of this source and, frankly, because the harsh truth had already been swallowed. It’s hard to spit that back up and have hope for the big man’s career to not be over.
But if it isn’t. If he can. Then Purdue would both have their biggest advantage back, and maybe the best story in the tournament. And the NCAA tournament is prone to good stories.
But what if this is all a rouge? What if he can play but not well?
We don’t know what’s true or not, just that if this story were real, it’d be better than anything we could make up.
It’s less than 48 hours later, but it feels like Purdue has come a long way from Friday. Not only were the rumors true that Haas was trying to play, he was actually on the court, warming up, grabbing balls, with a grimace, and taking left-handed free throw attempts.
It still looked like a miracle for him to play, and something beyond that to actually play well, but you could tell he was determined to give it a go.
As it turns out, the brace that was necessary to secure his arm wasn’t cleared by the NCAA.
Turns out, also, that Purdue was more than just their biggest man. While the loss of Haas was evident, it was his three fellow seniors that all stepped up and had huge games. PJ Thompson is officially out of his funk. He scored 14 points on 9 shots, in 31 aggressive minutes, and because he’s PJ, he did it without turning the ball over.
Dakota Mathias hit the shot of the game. After Purdue’s offense stalled late in the game, they found themselves up just 2 with possession and less than a minute on the clock, and Mathias found himself open after a screen, lifted, and hit the high-difficulty moving three that has become his staple and helped seal Purdue’s second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
But it was Purdue’s other injured senior, Vincent Edwards, returning to full form and becoming the best player on the court again, that saved Purdue time and again. He was so good, so ruthless, scoring 20, not missing a free throw, and going 6 of 8 from the floor. All this despite getting in early foul trouble with two quick ones, and grabbing his third foul just before half time. He didn’t start the second half, but when he came in, he went right to work, and didn’t commit another foul. He wasn’t going to miss anymore of the game – even if it meant him playing the five when Matt Haarms and Jacquil Taylor both went to the bench.
For a program gilded in disappointing March’s, this team has come together, with young freshman and walk-ons, and made it to the last sixteen teams standing in the country.
There might not have been a more consistent positive than former walk-on Grady Eifert. Eifert had a huge put-back while drawing a foul for his only basket, but grabbed 5 rebounds, was everywhere on defense, drawing charges and forcing turnovers.
Purdue did it without their big man on the floor, but his presence and voice hung over them, especially with the big men who did a tremendous job filling in for him.
“He’s always talking to me. He’s always been that mentor for me. Today, it was extra… he was a big time voice for us on the bench,” Matt Haarms said with a big smile.
For Haas, not being on the court hurts, but his selflessness carries him through.
“I’ve been up and down. Obviously when I got the news I was devastated. I really kind of just shut down for a minute then I realized my teammates needed me more than I needed it for myself. And I just told them, I’d be there for them, no matter what. I told them we were going to have to beat some ‘Dawgs today. They did it and I’m proud of them.”
They did it.
And yet still, as I prepare to follow this team to another city, Haas will not let go of his fight. What if the NCAA had allowed him to play in his brace? Could he have? Could he really? Maybe not, but it wouldn’t be him deciding that. He wants this still. He’s still wanting it.
“We’ll see. It just depends on if the inflammation goes down and what we can find that works for a brace that’s within those NCAA regulations. Nothing against those guys. They really wanted me to play. They’re like, hey, we know you’re a key part of this team but we also have to protect other players and we have a job to do as well.”
But don’t think for one minute Haas is going to take anything but the high road back to the court.
He’s been the tallest man in the room his whole life.