The tale of winning a Big Ten Championship is written in the margins.
Basketball, a game of star-struck wonder, is both, as a construct, heavily reliant on talent and, in reality, at the mercy of blind dumb luck.
It makes processing games, plays, seasons, and championships difficult. This years Boilermaker basketball team are Big Ten champions. They share that crown with a Michigan St. team that they split with, one win each at their home venue. They both lost four conference games.
Last year’s Boilermaker’s team lost just 3 conferences games, and did not win the Big Ten conference. Instead, Michigan St. sat alone on top of the standings.
In both seasons, Purdue’s championship bid was decided by a tip-in in the last seconds of a February game. In 2018, it was Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop who was able to get to a teammate’s miss after a nearly perfect defensive possession where one missed box out cost Purdue what would have been a three-peat.
This year, it was Purdue’s turn to find gold at the end of an outstretched hand attached to a 7’3” center carrying the entire weight of a hostile crowd on his shoulders. When Matt Haarms tip-in pushed Purdue up 48-46 in one of the ugliest college basketball games you will ever see, Purdue escaped the bad loss. The kind that you think about for years.
For Purdue’s 2018 team, a team stocked with seniors and an even better sophomore, they couldn’t avoid them. There was the Diop tip-in, the Miles Bridges three in East Lansing, and whatever that performance was in Madison against a hapless Wisconsin team. (Except, of course, they did have Happ.) While Haas, Mathias, Thompson, Edwards, and Edwards were as consistent as a starting five could be, they found themselves on the wrong side of plot-twists without the side characters to help alter their fate.
This year’s Purdue team should not be this good at avoiding disaster.
At the beginning of the season, it looked like they weren’t. They blew a second half lead against Virginia Tech in the Charleston Classic Championship game. They absolutely collapsed at Florida State in their following game when they gave up a multiple possession lead in the final minute with a combination of missed free throws and turnovers.
They thwarted a 40 point performance by Carsen Edwards at Texas, including a last-possession where they had a chance to tie, but couldn’t even get a shot off and instead turned the ball over.
At 6-5, Purdue was fading fast. Their youth looked insurmountable. The NCAA tournament seemed wishful thinking. Their bench and youngsters looked invisible and incapable of affecting the plot.
So what happened?
Purdue went on the road and won an overtime game against Wisconsin. The margins started to fill, not by the author you’d think (Carsen’s air ball too early at the end of the game almost cost them), but by those players on the periphery. In the Badgers game, Trevion Williams was incredible even if his stats don’t look like it. He stood toe to toe with the best center in the country and gave as much as he got. His passing was the biggest weapon Purdue had, and his dishes to Eifert for free throws helped seal the game.
Then Nojel Eastern started to make free throws. He made 3 out of 4 in the Wisconsin game. He made 8 out of 10 when Purdue whipped Michigan St. in Mackey Arena when the Spartans were mounting a vicious comeback. He made all 8 of his free throws at Penn State in an overtime win. He also started rebounding, a lot. He also started scoring a lot more and assisting.
In the last four games, Eastern has scored 15, 12, 6, and 14 points. He’s done this while also grabbing at least 5 rebounds in all of those games. He’s had at least 3 assists in each of those game. He’s getting to the rim more, getting to the line, and making them.
Grady Eifert has evolved in the last month from late-game sniper to all-around sniper. He’s now shooting over 45% from three. He also boasts the highest offensive rating in the entire country according to Kenpom. His last second tip-ins against Nebraska on the road almost single-handedly kept Purdue from racking up the exact bad loss that would have cost them another Big Ten Championship. He has the highest effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentages in the conference, 3rd and 7th best in the nation respectively. The cute story angle is now retired. Eifert is an All-B10 caliber starter on the Big Ten Champs. Purdue doesn’t come close to winning the chip without him this season.
And then there’s Matty Haarms, who has transformed from early season major disappointment to fighting for best big man in the conference crown (It’s still Happs, but Haarms is the best defender). His early season energy led him to being out of position, and pushing Purdue’s defense to disarray. Now, he’s swatting shots everywhere, going after rebounds with force, and scoring the basketball. All things Purdue struggled with to start the year. The tip-in at Indiana was nice, but his all-around improvement during the season has been the real story. Purdue lost to Michigan St. early in the season because Haarms and company couldn’t handle their physicality. They took it personally.
And now they’re champions for it.
There’s word play to get to about the margin of victory and these Boilers who have signed their name on the margins of this season.
But most importantly, is what the paper says at the top:
Purdue Boilermakers basketball 2018-19, Big Ten Champions.