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Paradise Lost

We should be getting ready for San Antonio.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Purdue vs Texas Tech Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This is not how it was supposed to end.

Isaac Haas sits hands clasped on the bench in a black warm-up shirt covering the brace that could do everything except heal a bone that was split.

Dakota Mathias, splashes his 96th 3-pointer of the season and record 250th of his career with 38 seconds left, but it only serves to make the score cosmetically closer. It is his only basket of the night, a testament to Texas Tech’s hounding defense.

P.J. Thompson dishes out his fourth assist, the last of his career, but it is all for not. He had a masterful tournament after struggling at the end of the regular season.

Vince Edwards fouls to stop the clock with 52 seconds left and Purdue trailing by 15 points, as if there was a magical 18 point shot that would somehow save the day.

It wasn’t supposed to end here. We shouldn’t see Dakota in the locker room with a towel over his head, or P.J. looking spent, or Isaac humble and injured, or Vince with a 12-13-3 that will end up forgotten.

We were supposed to have a joyous return to campus today, regional champion’s trophy in tow. We were supposed to be marching on San Antonio in triumph as a return to the promised land of the Final Four, just like the football team returned to the postseason in the same building 21 years ago. We should be preparing to take on a mercurial Kansas team, seeking redemption for last year’s blowout. We should be dreaming of facing Loyola in the final or a fourth and final matchup with Michigan.

The Final Four is the elusive dream of the Purdue fan. Many of us have seen a Rose Bowl, and indeed, we only went 34 years between appearances there. We enjoy football. We love what Jeff Brohm is doing and lament of the mockery that Darrell Hazell made our program.

But this is Indiana, and basketball will always be king here.

So we show up. We scream our heads off in Mackey Arena to create one of the best home court advantages in the game. We watch and cheer beneath a wealth of Big Ten championship banners, but in the back of our minds we know there are just two Final Four banners up there: 1969 and 1980.

There has been room for a third for a long time. Most of my life since I was only 5 months old when that 1980 one was earned.

This class and this year was supposed to be the third. At the start of last season, when we pushed defending champion Villanova to the brink, then later won the Big Ten title outright, we figured that this group would finally get that third Final Four. Either it would be last year with the transformative singular talent of Caleb Swanigan or this year, when they were the epitome of team basketball.

For weeks the plan worked. From November 24th to February 3rd Purdue ripped 19 straight wins and looked like the best team in America. We knew this team would be good again even without Biggie, but this good? We toyed with opponents. We beat Iowa by bombing away from three. We beat Michigan (who could damn well win the title) by playing bully ball with our 7’2” 290 pound Goliath. When we had a rematch with the Wolverines on January 25th both teams played a transcendent second half that was worthy of a replay in front of the eyes of the nation next Monday night. By February 4th we were 23-2 and everything looked great.

Did we peak too soon? Did we just have a run against subpar competition? Of the 19 wins only four were against NCAA Tournament teams (Butler, Lipscomb, and Michigan twice), so was it a mirage? Were we really as good as we thought?

On February 7 we led No. 14 Ohio State by 14 with 10 minutes left. Close it out and Purdue wins its second straight Big Ten title. Unfortunately, from that moment forward, with a 19.75 game win streak in the bag, Purdue would go only 7-5. The game-winning putback by Keita Bates-Diop eventually led to another second place in a season of runner-ups:

Second Place in the World University Games

Second Place in the Big Ten

Second Place in the Big Ten Tournament

Second Weekend of the NCAA Tournament

In a vacuum, those are great accomplishments. Hundreds of teams would kill for them. At Purdue, with this group and how they looked walking into the building on February 7th, they are bitter pills.

It was supposed to be more.

The Boilers lost five games down the stretch. It lost because the Big Ten player of the Year converted a second offensive rebound (after a lucky three about a minute earlier). It lost because a lottery pick hit a challenged 25-footer (after Haas was denied inside on the previous possession). It lost because this group had the rare night off at Wisconsin and played terrible basketball. It lost to the possible national champion as it was fully rounding into postseason form. Finally, it lost to a Texas Tech team that played nasty defense and we weren’t able to use our one nearly unstoppable offensive weapon against them inside when he would have overpowered them.

The Season of Seconds, as it will likely be remembered, is one of the best in school history. By sheer volume of wins it was the best, as no Purdue team but this one has ever won 30 games. Still, on this Monday morning, it feels hollow because it was supposed to be so much more. I know many teams feel hollow while Kansas, Villanova, Michigan, and Loyola-Chicago are all still alive. Duke was loaded with NBA talent and should still be playing. Virginia was the best team in America and was stunned in the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. Arizona was undone by a federal investigation and never playing as well as they should have. Xavier, Cincinnati, North Carolina, and yes, Purdue, were all good enough to make it this far. Unfortunately, only four can go this far, and for us, we’re historically inept on this journey.

Being a Purdue basketball fan in March is a Sisyphean task. Each year we hope and pray it will be different. It plays out the same though. Kansas State. Big Dog’s back in 1994. Western Carolina in 1996. Mark Madsen in 1998. F&*$ing Wisconsin in 2000. Chris Booker in 2004 (not in March, but work with me). Robbie’s knee in 2010. Rob’s knee again in 2011. Now it is Haas’ elbow.

What hurts the most is the Haas injury. Yes, we fumbled away the Big Ten on our own. The last 10 minutes of that Ohio State game will always be a bitter memory, and one that if you erase it, or even secure one more rebound, the entire ending of this season isn’t as bad. In the end Purdue was undone by an anonymous Cal State Fullerton forward pulling Isaac to the floor and breaking his elbow. He did what the entire couldn’t do: He found a way to stop Isaac Haas. I know the play was not malicious, but the result was the same. Haas’ elbow now goes down forever with Robbie Hummel’s knee in the pantheon of Purdue injuries. It might even be higher since it occurred in the tournament and it was some no-name player that will be working as a banker in a year that caused it.

And so here we are, waiting to rebuild again. Matt Painter has built a program that regularly competes for Big Ten championships and reaches the NCAA Tournament. He has won two Big Ten titles and finished second four more times. He wins two out of every three games and at least gives us a chance to advance in March every year. He’s 8-2 in first round NCAA games (and about 5 seconds from being 10-0), so he is not terrible.

Through all this, he is 0-4 in Sweet 16 games, even if his best chances were undone by untimely injuries. This includes his best shot coming undone with said injury in the damn tournament. Only three of his teams at Purdue have missed the NCAAs, but none have advanced past the Sweet 16. Yes, much of it is horrible injury luck, but until he breaks through that “Sweet 16 Ceiling” will exist.

And Painter had every chance to break though even with the Haas injury. On three straight possessions with less than 8 minutes left Purdue trailed by only three and needed one critical stop. With 7:04 left Keenan Evans made a jumper. With 6:09 left Zach Smith scored inside. With 5:27 left Evans made two free throws. The Red Raiders pushed the lead to 56-51, 58-53, and 60-55 on all three possessions. On Purdue’s next two possessions Vince missed a tip-in and Matt Haarms committed an offensive foul. Evans then nailed a three-pointer with 4:25 left and Vince followed with a turnover.

It was over from there. The final margin ballooned to an ugly 13, but the Boilers were right there and gave it everything despite what they faced. In the end, 17 turnovers and 11 offensive rebounds given up were the difference. Since Matt Painter is the program’s once constant he will shoulder the blame going forward, fairly or not.

So paradise was lost. Again, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Years from now we will cherish what Vince, Dakota, Isaac, and P.J. meant for this program. Shoot, I still do. 103 wins. 30 in a season. A Big Ten title. Two good tournament runs. 3-1 in Assembly Hall against the hated Hoosiers and 5-1 against them overall. They did it the right way. The image will always be Haas breaking down on Senior Night because of how Purdue fans brought him in and did a wonderful thing for his sister. He was a kid from Alabama that chose Purdue at the last minute, but we adopted him from the beginning. That Senior Night moment was 14,000+ people giving him a giant hug.

We did it because he is our family. They all are.

The NCAA Tournament is cruel though. It is cruel because we don’t get see these guys play in the Final Four even if they were instrumental in rebuilding the program to the point where it might get back there in five years. It is cruel because Haas is somewhere in Indianapolis having his arm operated on today instead of on Brian Cardinal Court practicing for a Final Four and fielding interviews. It is cruel because these four guys gave EVERYTHING they had to Purdue basketball, but their 4-4 record in March will judge them as coming up just short.

Even as a fan, it is cruel. Four months of watching, hoping, and cheering are erased in a 2 hour span. By the time the game was over Friday night I was mentally drained. I knew htey had given it all, but it was cruelly over. I also knew that the mental and emotional strain of dealing with the attacks and insults hurled on this board and on twitter would continue because we came up short again. Sure enough, Saturday morning I had to hand out same bans as racial slurs and attack on our writers were hurled over a basketball game. Dealing with the “Ainters vs. Sainters” debate has been draining for months and I have to say am not looking forward to it continuing.

As a fan, it hurts this morning because of these reasons, but also because it was not supposed to end this way and, in the back of our minds, we knew this was going to be our best shot for a while. The last two years have been a joy, but next season, even with a great player like Carsen Edwards, there are a ton of questions. You don’t lose four starters like these guys and get better. Purdue is not Kentucky or Duke. We’re not replacing great guys with elite McDonald’s All-Americans. We’re replacing them with very, very good players, but they are players that will need time to develop.

The Purdue basketball team in 2018-19 will be very, very young. Only Ryan Cline, Jacquil Taylor, and Grady Eifert will be seniors. Among them they have maybe 15 starts compared to 1,392,504 that Edwards, Haas, Thompson, and Mathias had. We bring in three freshmen, add two more that were redshirting, and hope everything works out. The expectation is still to compete in the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament. With 6 straight years of a 7 seed or worse making a Final Four there is always hope that they “get hot in March with the right matchups”, but how bitter would it be to see next year’s group Loyola into a Final Four after this team couldn’t. yes, we would relish it, but it was supposed to be these guys.

There is always hope though. Matt Painter may not have delivered in March, but he is still going to be here. That means we’re at least going to have a chance to have that breakthrough. Sometimes that chance is all you need. Painter is not going anywhere for a while, so we will keep getting those chances.

I will be in Mackey watching, waiting, and hoping.