I turned 42 last month.
I have been thinking about that a lot. The average American lifespan is 78.8 years. Obviously there are highs and (unfortunately) extreme lows that skew that, but I had grandparents that lived to 91, 88, and 83. I am pretty healthy, so getting to the 84-85 range is probably pretty reasonable, and maybe a few more with medical advancements over the next few years.
Still, I am roughly halfway there. My bones ache a little more. It takes a few extra moments to get going in the morning. I am sitting on multiple foot surgeries in my lifetime and could need more later. Time is undefeated, and when it comes to Purdue Men’s Basketball, time is both hopeful and cruel.
Technically, I can say Purdue has played in a Final Four in my lifetime. On March 22, 1980 the Boilers took on UCLA in Market Square Arena and lost 67-62. Two days later they defeated Iowa 75-58 for the now defunct Third Place game, but it has now been 15,205 days since our last appearance on college basketball’s final weekend. We have even only come within a game three times in that span.
I was 162 days old for that UCLA game.
If you’re a Purdue basketball fan there is always hope. Over the last 40+ years we have perennially been a top 25 team and NCAA Tournament participant. Since that 1980 tournament there have been 40 tournaments played (2020 was cancelled). Purdue has played in 29 of them. They made an additional five NIT appearances, so count those as “close to the tournament”. That leaves just six of the last 40 where Purdue was neither in the Big Dance nor just outside it, entering the end of the season with at least a chance. Having 41 years of only two coaches, one transitioning easily to the chosen replacement, will do that. For the vast majority of NCAA Division I schools a single appearance in the field is a program dream. We’re blessed to be in the handful of schools where just making it is the bare minimum expectation.
Still…15,205 days, and by April 2,2022, the day of the next Final Four, it will be 15,349 days.
There is a lot of heartbreak in those appearances. 1988 had the Kansas State upset after we had blasted them by 30+ in the regular season. 1994 was Big Dog’s back. 1996 was severely underperforming as a #1 seed. 1998 was Mark Madsen beating the living hell out of Brad Miller with impunity. 2000 was the broken bracket ruined by Wisconsin, our third loss in four games against them that year. Hummel’s knee in 2010. VCU running us off the floor in 2011 (and also Hummel’s knee). Kansas obliterating us in 2017. Haas’ elbow in 2018. Clark to Diakite in 2019. Even last year was disappointing as we fell victim to being a top 4 seed getting upset in the first round for the first time. I didn’t even mention teams that probably weren’t going to the Final Four, but still suffered painful losses like Cincinnati and Little Rock.
I feel like Captain Ahab at this point. I have seen Purdue do everything in college basketball except make it to the last weekend. It has become an obsession in my brain. I need to see it. Big Ten titles are not enough. Preseason accolades are not enough. Only March matters. Until we make it, everything else feels like a disappointment, especially after being in the arena in 2019 and being half a second away. I am a Cubs fan, and they even won the damn World Series in my lifetime. We can’t get one damn Final Four when we’ve been a lot better at our sport than the Cubs?
15,205 days, and that 40+ years is only there because of one half second.
March is cruel. Excellent teams fall all the time, the prime example being UMBC over Virginia. They still came back to win the title a year later. I see teams like George Mason, Butler, VCU, Wichita State, and Loyola-Chicago making runs to the last weekend and they are great stories, but there is a certain sense of “Oh. Come. On. THEY can do it but WE can’t?”
When you have a team like this year’s team it is impossible to not think about April 2, 2022. I work for a property management company in Indianapolis. A few weeks ago I made the offhand comment to the VP of my department that I was looking at refundable flights to New Orleans for that week. You know, just in case. I said I was looking at flying back on the Wednesday just because it was significantly cheaper than Tuesday after the title game. She then told me, “we have properties down there. If you work from their office or go between them to take website pictures you probably won’t need to take time off and we can even pay to fly you back.”
I told her to be quiet and get back in her office (jokingly, of course. She is a Purdue fan too).
April 2, 2022 is looming there. It is tantalizing. Experts are picking Purdue to make it and maybe even win the whole damn thing. The cruelty of the tournament though is that you can make it to March 26 or 27 (the days of the regional finals) less than a week away with all kinds of hope, but not make it.
I have lived those 15,205 days. I have seen at least half a dozen teams good enough to make it ( 1994, 2000, 2010, 2011, 2018, and 2019 being the best chances) come up short. There is a nagging sense of foreboding in my bones that no matter how good things look, a Haas or Hummel situation can happen in an instant. It makes you wonder if there is some higher power preventing it from happening. It gives you PTSD (Purdue Tournament Stress Disorder). A season like Purdue football is having feels somewhat more enjoyable because we might get 8-4 (or better!) completely out of nowhere, whereas basketball has sky high expectations.
It is hope, but it kills you.
Is typing nearly 1,000 words about this a sign I am thoroughly insane? Probably. Still, this season is full of hope. Purdue is as talented as any team of the past 41 years, and it is also deeper and more experienced. Everything is in the right spot, and if the shooting comes through from outside, plus a little more defense, April 2, 2022 gets a little closer each day. I think the shooting will come. Brandon Newman and Sasha Stefanovic are too good for it not to come, plus the other role players that can hit. Get enough of it and the defense matters even less.
I really think this team not only can make it to April 2, 2022, it will be favored to do so barring something Purdue happening. It might be the most complete Purdue team in terms of talent, depth, and experience in my lifetime. It is going to be very, very good, and when it is on there will be very few teams that can beat it.
I think back to that night in Louisville. I was guarded all night. I was guarded as Carsen Edwards was practically incandescent he was so hot. I was guarded when Grady Eifert grabbed that rebound that meant “hit free throws and clinch it”. I was guarded when we fouled to send them to the line. The ONLY time I let myself believe it was happening was when the ball was tipped into the backcourt. I felt it was either going to go out of bounds and be our ball, 70 feet from their basket, with maybe 2 seconds left, or they would have to throw in a half court heave. In that moment my brain finally said, “We’re going to the Final Four and I am stage diving into the Purdue fans behind me.”
I got to think about that moment the entire drive back to Indy that night. I’ve thought about it a lot since.
This team can do it though. This team can have a great regular season, which leads to that favorable path as a 1 or 2 seed. I would love a 25th Big Ten championship and third in the last six years, but I desperately want to be in New Orleans on April 2, 2022. This team can end that drought at 15,349 days. It is that good. It may even be good enough to end the drought of “no NCAA Tournament championships since the Big Bang”.
Before the 1950 World Cup Final Uruguay was a massive underdog to the host nation Brazil. After the team’s coach gave them what was probably a futile strategy, the team’s captain, Obdulio Varela, gave an emotional speech about going against the odds and not being intimidated by a crowd that, by most accounts, was 200,000 people in favor of Brazil at the famous Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. He closed with the line, ”Muchachos, los de afuera son de palo. Que comience la función” (“Boys, outsiders don’t play. Let’s start the show”).
They went out and stunned the Brazilians 2-1 to win the World Cup.
I am an outsider. I have absolutely no say whatsoever about making it to April 2, 2022, so my terror of “Oh God, when is it going to go horribly awry” means nothing. I am going to be there, basking in Mackey’s glow as much as I can and hopefully I can enjoy what can be an incredible ride over these next five months. This group, this team, has more than enough ability to get the job done. They know it, and I think they will play with that pressure extremely well, because even the 2018 team seemed to get tight the longer that win streak went on. I don’t see that in Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams. Ivey especially wants that pressure. He lives off of it. He gets better and wants those moments.
These guys can make sure it doesn’t get to 15,350 days.
Let’s start the show.