You might have heard that the Final Four was this weekend.
I didn’t watch much of it.
All told, I watched most of the title game but none of Saturday night’s semifinals. This is a hard admission as a college basketball junkie. If the game is close I’ll tune in to a random Directional State giving a Big Ten team the business in December, but by the time the Final Four rolls around I am often doing other things.
It’s because Purdue basketball has made me hate the NCAA Tournament.
I came to this realization this morning and I recognize it is not a popular one. For many, (including me for a long time) the tournament has been Christmas. 48 high stakes games in 96 hours? Yes please! The first and second rounds remain as the best weekend in sports because of the sheer craziness that can happen. That was on exhibit this year when Virginia was the dominant team in America for four months, losing only twice overall and just once barely) in the toughest conference in America. What happened when the big lights came on? Inexplicably they got their asses handed to them by a school no one had ever heard of. They could roll in to Cameron Indoor and beat a team of lottery picks convincingly, but they lost by 20 to a team of guys that are going to have to pay to get into any NBA arena.
As an outsider, that is fun. There is a certain “at least it wasn’t us” to watching them fall. At the same time, I feel the pain Virginia fans feel. For four months they were nearly unstoppable. They did everything right and went into the Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. They certainly looked like a favorite and one of the best teams in recent memory. Two hours later they are a historical joke. Everything they did in the previous four months was rendered moot because of Maryland-Baltimore County 74, Virginia 54. Their previous 31 wins and the two losses by 8 total points, the ACC regular season title, the ACC Tournament title; it all means nothing. Their 2017-18 team will only be remember as the first No. 1 seed on the men’s side to lose to a 16 seed, and it was by 20 points!
I feel Virginia’s pain because Purdue has felt a similar pain for years. No one has more Big Ten championships than our 23. Those championships are coveted and deserve to be celebrated. They are earned over two months in some of the hardest venues in America. Since 1980 Purdue has won 8 Big Ten championships and finished second another seven times. That’s 15 times in 38 years we have been among the best in the country.
We have zero Final Fours and Zero National Championships to show for it.
Purdue has never made the Final Four in the 64-team era. It has been a No. 1 seed 3 times and a No. 2 seed another three times. That means that, by seed, Purdue should have made six Elite Eights. With said top seeds Purdue has made one Elite Eight: in 1994. It made a second as a six seed in 2000, but that’s it. Twice (1990 and 1996) it failed to even reach the Sweet as a top two seed.
I was 5 months old the last time Purdue made a Final Four, so I can say with pretty good authority that the NCAA Tournament has caused a lifetime of pain. My first real memory of watching it was the infamous Keith Smart shot in 1987. Every school that has won at least one Big Ten championship since 1980 has made at least one Final Four… except Purdue. Here is the full list (I am including vacated titles because, let’s face it, they happened):
Indiana: 9 tied or outright B1G championships, 4 Final Fours, 2 championships
Ohio State: 9 tied or outright B1G championships, 3 Final Fours
Michigan State: 9 tied or outright B1G championships, 7 Final Fours, 1 championship
Purdue: 8 tied or outright B1G championships, 0 Final Fours
Illinois: 6 tied or outright B1G championships, 2 Final Fours
Wisconsin: 4 tied or outright B1G championships, 3 Final Fours
Michigan: 4 tied or outright B1G championships, 5 Final Fours, 1 championship
Minnesota: 2 tied or outright B1G championships, 1 Final Four
Yes, Ohio State vacated two of those two Big Ten titles (plus a Final Four) and Minnesota vacated vacated their 1997 title and Final Four, but the point remains. Purdue has been more than good enough in the regular season. It has two paltry Elite Eight appearances in March to show for it. By this list alone, it should have at least two Final Fours.
And this is why I have come to hate the NCAA Tournament. This year only reinforced it. If you’re a Purdue fan it has been nothing but pain for four decades. In the past 38 years we have missed the tournament only 11 times. We should have ACCIDENTALLY made a Final Four by now, especially when Freaking Loyola can get there in their first appearance in 33 years. The tournament has ruined wonderful regular seasons. It has lessened the accomplishments of those 8 Big Ten championships and 7 runner-up finishes. Those 15 seasons were obviously very good regular seasons. Some were surprises, like 2008. Some were expected like 2018. All of them were an enjoyable and hard fought couple of months where Purdue earned its place.
In all 15 seasons (and in the other 12 NCAA appearances) they have ended with bitter defeat for various reasons: Big Dog’s back, Hummel’s knee, Haas’ elbow, Mitch Richmond, Mark Madsen, F*#@ing Wisconsin, Kansas, Duke, Little Rock, Green Bay… it goes on and on. This season Purdue won more games than it has ever won in a single season, but it really won nothing. It was second in the World University Games, second in the Big Ten, second in the Big Ten Tournament, and only went to the second weekend of the Big Ten Tournament.
As much as I enjoyed watching this team this year, especially when it was crushing skulls in January, I feared this. Virginia showed us that the proverbial bad night at the wrong time can happen to anyone, so that is what I feared. I never thought it would be undone by an anonymous Cal State Fullerton forward pulling Haas to the ground while down 20 points and shattering his elbow. Then again, when even Purdue’s best ever NCAA tournament in 1969 featured injuries to three key players before the championship game we should have been on guard even for that.
Unfortunately, it is the nature of college basketball to be judged on tournament success. We’ve been one of the best programs in America over the last 40 years… in the regular season. We have an unmatched home court advantage and a string of success in a major conference. Every year seems to be a great ride, but it always ends well short of where it should. Coaches have been at fault (Painter was awful vs. Little Rock). Opposing teams outplaying us have been the reason (Hi Kansas in 2017). Individual mistakes have been at fault (Hi Kansas State 1988). Injuries have been at fault (too many). It has made me hate the tournament. It is a Pavlovian response at this point, as the electric shock of each March has convinced me it will only end in pain.
You’re damn right I’ll be right back there watching next year when Purdue tips off the 2019 tournament in Hartford, Des Moines, Jacksonville, Salt Lake City, Columbia, SC, Columbus, OH, Tulsa, or Seattle, because it means it is another chance to erase it all.