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Purdue-Virginia: A Defining Moment

Purdue’s 2019-20 season took a major turn for the good last night.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 29-point win over defending NCAA Champion Virginia did nothing to change what happened in March. Caroline Darney of SB Nation’s Streaking the Lawn agreed:

Ask any Purdue fan. Give them the choice of making the Kihei Clark pass sail out of bounds or have Mamadi Diakite miss his final shot, only it means a 29 point loss in Mackey Arena to Virginia last night, and they will take the former 100 out of 100 times. As Sasha Stefanovic said in last night’s press conference:

“Personally, I wasn’t looking at as revenge at all. We’re a totally different team. They’re a totally different team. Last year happened. There’s nothing you can do about it now.”

Matt Haarms agreed:

“For me, it was about testing ourselves against a top 5 team in the country. You can talk about last year all you want, but now, this was about this game and this team tonight.”

That spoke a lot to me. College sports are both fun and cruel because lineups change constantly. That game was 8 months ago, but it feels like a lifetime because three Purdue starters are gone. Sure, some key components remain, but they are looking forward instead of back.

A few weeks ago Drew Brees was on campus and talked about defining moments in his pregame speech to the football team. They then went out and got a nice win over Nebraska, but against much lower stakes. For Purdue fans, basketball will almost always exist on a higher level of stakes. In football, winning a national title is beyond our wildest dreams and I think I can safely say will never happen. With a single Big Ten Championship in the last 50 years just winning it again would be a tremendous achievement.

Basketball is different. NCAA bids every season are a birthright now. Not only that, Purdue has won at least one game in 17 of its last 19 tournament appearances, with both losses coming in overtime. With 24 Big Ten championships and that NCAA run, each season we’re expected to compete in the Big Ten and do at least a little damage in the tournament. In the last three years specifically, anything less than a Big Ten championship and a spot in the Elite Eight felt anticlimactic and like a disappointment. Sure, it doesn’t happen every year, but expectations and stakes are always a little higher than in other places.

That’s why last night felt like a defining moment. Sure, it did not clinch a Big Ten title. It did not advance us a single round in the NCAA Tournament unless you consider the seeding ramifications or that it made an NCAA bid itself more likely. It was a defining moment because this team was still coming together. Through seven games Purdue was 4-3. It was even briefly under .500 for the first time in more than five years after the loss at Marquette. The invulnerability that the program felt in Mackey was shattered with the loss to Texas, and stagnant offense was a major factor against Marquette, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida State. That Texas loss in particular stings because Purdue had the ball, leading by 5, with less than 3 minutes left. That is winning time at Mackey, and the stunned silence as the Longhorns won seemed to hang in the arena. Almost everyone quietly filed out with the same thought: “This is Mackey! We’re not supposed to lose in Mackey!”

It is hard to call a game against the defending NCAA Champion and No. 5/2 team in the country a must win, but Purdue needed to make a statement. It needed to come through at home and show that a lot can be accomplished this season. Before last night Purdue still felt like an NCAA team, but not in the same way as the past three seasons. The past three seasons Purdue has won two Big Ten titles, was a single rebound away from a third, and has made three Sweet 16s and an Elite 8. Those are lofty heights, so a step back this season was understandable. With the three losses it even seemed probable. Purdue looked like a team that would have excellent defense, struggle on offense at times, and get into March as a 6-10 seed.

That is what makes last night so defining. First of all, the crowd was excellent. While it was good for Texas, it was at another level last night. I don’t think there is a lot of ill will towards the Cavaliers. In fact, it reminded me of a few seasons ago when Villanova came in as The Champs. There was respect. There was a desire to be on their level. They had been to the mountaintop and the crowd wanted to share in their glory a bit by beating them. When you add in what happened on March 30, 2019 (a play that most Purdue fans respect the hell out of even if it hurt tremendously), and 14,804 people wanted that game badly, especially when many were also there against Texas and went through the unthinkable: a home loss.

Virginia lost a lot, but they are still an excellent team. Through seven games they had not given up more than 46 points in six of seven games. Purdue had struggled to score consistently against a pair of really good defensive teams Friday and Saturday, so there was a concern even if Virginia’s own offense was sluggish.

Coach Painter showed why I and so many others trust him though. He changed the lineup based pretty much on match-ups. Nojel Eastern and Aaron Wheeler were out. Trevion Williams and Sasha Stefanovic were in. Williams and Haarms matched up extremely well with Virginia two big lineup and Sasha bombed away from deep for the best game of his career. Virginia is a unique team. They are so very good defensively, but so deliberate on offense. It is hard for them to play catch up if you build a lead and that is what Purdue did.

The lineup change showcased Purdue’s versatility, as Casey said:

Without Carsen Edwards coming out to drop 40 on fools, Purdue’s leading scorer can change by the night. Some nights Sasha will hit six threes. Some nights Haarms will dominate inside. Isaiah Thompson has already had a big night and showed he can get hot. Eric Hunter Jr. is making a sophomore leap that is enjoyable to watch. Proctor has had a couple big games, too. There will even be a game where Nojel Eastern puts it all together and gets like 16. Through eight games Purdue has had five different leading scorers. Last season it had five in 36 games. Trevion led us with 13 in East Lansing, Cline led with 17 against Michigan State at home and 11 at Indiana, and Haarms led with 17 at Nebraska and 16 against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. The rest was the Carsen show.

We’re a different team, and that can be very good. Versatility can be this team’s calling card and it make it very hard for opponents to prepare for.

I understand this is a different Virginia team too, but the “Defending Champs” moniker and their lofty ranking still carries a lot of weight. It opens some eyes. It can begin to define a new season even with new participants. In last night’s press conference I asked Jahaad Proctor about what it meant to him since he wasn’t part of the team last year, and here is what he said:

Even though I wasn’t hear last year, I’m here now. Whatever pain they felt last year, I feel it too. Whatever revenge they wanted, I want it too. I didn’t personally feel it last year, but I watched it. This team went through a lot last year coming so close to beating them, so I was just as eager to do what we did tonight on our home court. I hope we match up with them again in the same situation later this year.

This year still has a long way to go. There are a lot of challenges left with games to go against #3 Maryland, #4 Michigan (twice), #6 Ohio State, #24 Butler, two always tough rivalry games with Indiana, and more. Purdue probably would have been fine if it was 4-4 this morning, but 5-3 with a 29-point win over the Champs certainly looks better.

Even though this Virginia team is also different, they are still very, very good and will contend in the ACC and NCAA Tournament. They won’t lose by 29 again, partially because there are games where they may not give up 29 points period. This is a win that can turn Purdue’s 2019-20 season trajectory from “Pretty average with an NCAA berth” to “Okay, let’s go get Title #25 and breakthrough in March.”

I am excited to see where it goes.