Yes, I am cheating here a bit. The 2008 season was a revelation for Purdue. The Boilers had returned to the NCAA Tournament a year earlier. The stellar 2007 recruiting class came in with a lot of hype, but it started slowly. There was a three-point loss at Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. There was a loss at Missouri. Most notably, there was a home loss to lowly Wofford on December 19th, followed two days later by a loss to Iowa State out in Las Vegas. The team entered Big Ten play at 7-4 with only a win in Indianapolis over Louisville as a victory of note.
Then Purdue shockingly started reeling off win after win in Big Ten play. Robbie Hummel missed a 78-75 loss at Michigan State with an illness, but Purdue reeled off 11 straight wins in league play, including a pair of wins that I think are inseparable for this countdown.
Purdue 60, #11 Wisconsin 56 – January 26, 2008 at Purdue
#24 Purdue 72, #8 Wisconsin 67 – February 9, 2008 at Wisconsin
When you look back at the 2008 Big Ten season you see a Wisconsin team that was dominant and definitely a top 10 team. They came to Mackey in January at 16-2 overall with losses to Duke and Marquette. They would eventually go 31-4 before getting their fifth and final loss against Davidson and that Stephen Curry guy in the Sweet 16. This team was a borderline No. 1 seed and they went 19-0 against Big Ten competition not named Purdue, winning the Big Ten Tournament as well as the conference regular season at 16-2. This was a classic Wisconsin team that played tough as nails defense and had a random 6’8” power forward with a crazy Polish name that hit threes and dished out pain on screens.
They were 0-2 against Purdue, however.
I think both of these games are linked because they would have lasting impacts on the program to this day. Let’s look at the first game, which was in West Lafayette. As you can tell by the score, it was a gritty, grind it out game. Points were difficult to come by, but Purdue pulled ahead slightly at halftime 29-26. For much of the second half the margin would stay between three points either way, but the Boilers started a 10-1 run with 9:26 left on a pair of free throws from Robbie Hummel. After a defensive stop E’Twaun Moore hit a three, then Chris Kramer would score after another stop to go up 6. The Badgers added a free throw, but a three from Nemanja Calasan made it 50-42 Purdue with 7:03 left.
The Badgers wouldn’t go away, however, as Marcus Landry eventually cut it to two at 58-56 with 47 seconds left. Purdue attempted to run the shot clock down, but Moore would miss with 14 seconds left and give the Badgers a chance to tie or take the lead. That is when Hummel made one of the iconic plays of his career. Michael Flowers drove on him, but Hummel blocked him at the rim and secured the rebound with a second left. He was then fouled and iced the game with a pair of free throws.
What followed was an extremely rare moment in Purdue basketball history. The students actually rushed the court. This is rare for a couple of reasons. First, the walls at the end serve as quite a barrier to rushing the court. It is a 5-7 foot drop over a railing to the floor and with humanity pushing those in front it can quickly lead to a disaster. Second, it is Mackey. We’re supposed to win in Mackey every night. This was a spontaneous show of emotion and Purdue’s first win over a top 15 team since beating Duke in the Great Alaska Shootout around Thanksgiving 2003.
Our own Jumboheroes was there and rushed the court as part of the Paint Crew:
This one needs little explanation. I was in the front row as VP. And I mean the front row where the Defense Lives Here sign is located. Right next to the band. As the seconds ticked by people were whispering about rushing if we won, and should we, could we? When it became abundantly clear that it was happening I braced myself as a crowd of anxious students began to pour down the rows in anticipation until the clock hit zero and my feet hit the floor. I maintain I was the first one on the floor but I have no real way of knowing that. This was a defining moment in the Painter era.
Even though Purdue had made the NCAA Tournament the year before, the three years prior to 2006-07 were about as lean as we have ever seen. The court rush was cathartic. If felt like Purdue basketball was finally back and ready to compete for Big Ten championships after the 2001-06 seasons were pretty bad for the most part. After two more wins over Illinois and Iowa Purdue returned to the top 25 for the first time in four years, and the Boilers would enter the rematch in Madison tied for the Big Ten lead at 9-1.
The second game was the one where Purdue was supposed to come back to earth. Yeah, the Baby Boilers had a nice win over Wisconsin in West Lafayette, but Wisconsin always loses in West Lafayette. They are just 4-41 all-time in Mackey Arena, and one of those wins was during Gene Keady’s final season that was pretty terrible. The young freshmen were surely going to be intimidated and fall in what was the most formidable Big Ten arena at the time.
Wisconsin entered having won 16 consecutive Big Ten games at home. Purdue had never won in the new Kohl Center, hadn’t beaten a top 10 team on the road in 10 years, and hadn’t won in Madison in 12 years. Wisconsin was an astounding 51-2 against Big Ten competition since the arena opened and 104-6 overall. Those numbers put even Mackey to shame.
The thing I remember about this game is that it was on Big Ten Network in the first season of the new TV channel. My cable package didn’t have BTN yet, because the idea of a conference-specific sports network was laughable according to most cable systems. I had to track it via gametracker and listen to Larry Clisby, LIKE A SAVAGE!
Purdue stunned everyone by trailing only twice: at 2-0 and 6-5. By midway through the first half the Boilers would lead by 13 at 25-12. It would be 42-32 at the half as Purdue was actually scoring against the stout Badger defense. Dating back to a 67-66 win over Texas, the Badgers had not given up more than 61 points in 10 straight games. They had even held Indiana and Minnesota under 50. Purdue shot 64% from the floor in the first half, which was just shocking at the time considering the opponent and venue.
With 14:13 left in the second half Purdue eventually pushed its lead to 15 at 53-38. The Badgers had a run in them, however, and cut it to four at 66-62 with 2:52 left. After a timeout JaJuan Johnson scored an assist from Moore. The Badgers hit three of four free throws on their next two possessions (Because they shot 33 free throws to Purdue’s 22), to cut it to 68-65 with 1:22 left. JJ drew a foul and hit one of two, then Keaton Grant got a huge steal and dunk in transition with 53 seconds left. That gave Purdue the padding it would need. Wisconsin couldn’t manage a field goal in the last minute and Purdue had a huge 72-67 road win. Hummel led with 21 points as he established a reputation for torturing Bo Ryan.
This game stands out because Purdue went from “We’re having a good year” to “My God, we just might win the Big Ten when we were picked to finish around ninth.” The Boilers were in sole possession of first place now at 10-1 and it had the tiebreaker with Wisconsin due to the season sweep.
That Big Ten title didn’t happen. Purdue got another top 10 win by beating Michigan State three days later in Mackey. In one of the rare “Both teams are ranked and fighting for the Big Ten title” games of the last 20 years Purdue’s win streak was finally broken 77-68 at Indiana. An 80-77 overtime loss at Ohio State late in the season would cost Purdue the title. Wisconsin would get 16-2 to win it outright. Purdue’s 15-3 mark that season, and the 15-3 mark in 2018 would be the only two times in the last 13 years that a team would lose three games or less and not get at least a share of the title.
Both of these games set the stage for the remainder of the Matt Painter era. This was his third season at Purdue, and suddenly he was contending for Big Ten titles. In fact, he is a pair of very narrow losses to the Buckeyes from having five in 13 years. It had taken seemingly forever, but Purdue was finally back among the Big Ten elite. These two games gave the Baby Boilers the confidence they would need for the next three seasons. They also established the base of the following 12 seasons where Purdue would win the Big Ten three times and reach five Sweet 16s.
It was summed up best in what I wrote after the first game back when this site was still Off the Tracks:
Saying that this victory marked a return to the mountaintop is not right because it implies we can go no higher. I prefer, instead, to call it a return to the mountain. We announced that we are back as a program and ready to contend for the conference championship. We must now climb this mountain that we are back on, as there are three other teams out there that would certainly be glad to throw us off.
It’s been cold and windy on that mountain since, but for the most part Purdue basketball has at least been on it pretty high in the last 12 years.