Maybe the very idea of this column is premature. Last season I thought there were three different “turning points” where the season would take off because of a major event:
· When Sasha Stefanovic hit a three to send the Minnesota game to overtime, where Purdue eventually won in double OT.
· When Sasha hit the game-winning three late at Northwestern
· When Purdue grabbed its first double-digit win in Assembly Hall since 2011 and only second such win since 1977, taking a big wet dump on Bob Knight Day in the process.
In two of those cases Purdue lost its next game. It followed the Minnesota win with a horrific offensive performance at Illinois and it followed the Indiana win with four straight losses that all but ended any NCAA chances (had there been a tournament).
Still, recent seasons have been full of turning point wins. These are games where Purdue survives the fires, usually getting a big win on the road, and then takes off. Think of these games, which had major consequences for the rest of those seasons, as one like last night (hopefully).
2018-19 – Purdue 84, Wisconsin 80 (OT) at Wisconsin - Purdue entered at just 9-6, 2-2 in the Big Ten and had lost at Michigan State by 18 three days earlier. Even making the NCAA Tournament was in some doubt at this point after four non-conference losses to Florida State. Virginia Tech, Texas, and Notre Dame. A pure grit win in Madison, thanks especially to Grady Eifert, started a run where Purdue won 13 of the next 14 games, leading to a surprise Big Ten championship. Then there was the great NCAA Tournament run afterwards.
That team was a little like the current incarnation of Purdue: unproven, but you could tell it was close to something. I don’t expect a similar run, at least this year, but last night was kind of similar to that game in Madison in terms of gritting out a win and building confidence.
2017-18 – Purdue 89, Arizona 64 in Battle 4 Atlantis – In the early season a Purdue-Arizona game in the Battle 4 Atlantis was anticipated as a potential championship game in the event. Purdue returned a wealth of talent and Arizona was ranked second in the country with eventual No. 1 overall NBA pick Deandre Ayton. Surprisingly, both lost their first two games and met in the seventh place game, where Purdue blew their doors off. It ended up starting a 19-game winning streak for the Boilers, getting them as high as No. 3 in the polls before a three-game losing streak cost us the Big Ten title. That is the longest winning streak in school history.
2016-17 – Purdue 86, Notre Dame 81 in Crossroads Classic – Purdue’s only outright Big Ten title of the last quarter century was a year where Purdue was decidedly consistent, but still had some stumbles like at Nebraska and at home against Minnesota. Still, beating the Fighting Irish for the first time in five decades felt good. It was a non-conference win over a top 25 team and gave Purdue the confidence to win at Michigan State, Ohio State, Maryland, and Indiana in close games.
2014-15 – Purdue 87, BYU 85 (OT) in Maui Invitational – Purdue basketball was in a precarious position entering the 2014-15 season. It had missed the NCAA Tournament in the previous two seasons and there were near shouts that Matt Painter had peaked with the Baby Boilers run four years earlier. An ugly 88-79 loss to Kansas State in the first game out in Maui didn’t help matters, either. Purdue was able to beat Missouri, then A.J. Hammons’ late shot in overtime gave Purdue a much-needed boost before coming back to the mainland. There would be ugly home losses to North Florida and Gardner Webb after the BYU game, but Purdue had a stretch of right wins in nine games during Big Ten play and did just enough to sneak back into the dance. The BYU win had a lot to do with that.
Those are just a few of the bigger games that seemed to really change the direction of the program in each of those seasons. Of course, there are a lot of fizzled ones, too. I mentioned the three last year, but there was also Indiana in 2014, where Purdue followed with seven straight losses to end the year. It all depends on what Purdue does going forward.
I have been on record as saying that this is a table-setting year. It is a year where Purdue needs to just make the NCAA Tournament and get experience. Next year, in my mind, has always been where things will really take off. At halftime last night the “make the tournament” goal seemed like a challenge as Purdue was headed towards a third straight loss, and an ugly one at that. Twenty minutes of basketball later Purdue won a game in pretty much the same fashion where Miami had beaten it weeks earlier.
Because we reversed our fortunes from that night in Coral Gables this can definitely be one of those turning points. Next Thursday in Bloomington will help define if it is or not. Yes, Purdue won, but it was far from dominant. We were mostly just not as bad as Michigan State, and that was barely enough. Even after four straight wins in Bloomington I have zero confidence going into an empty Assembly Hall, especially since the Hoosiers are a bit of a wounded animal in conference play. They are about to enter their own gauntlet of six straight games currently in the top 25, so they might desperately need us as a win.
Maybe our turning point can put them out of their misery.