Well, that was quite a week, wasn’t it? On Monday, Purdue was crowned as the newest No. 1 ranked team in college basketball. The national writers were giving us out just due, there was talk of the first loss coming well into January (if it came at all, for some very starry-eyed people) and even articles about Purdue potentially being an all-timer of a team. By tipoff Thursday night, with Geo Baker out and a double digit line in our favor, I don’t think our fans could fly higher.
Fast forward to the second half today. Purdue was looking terrible. Fraudulent, even. One person even tweeted that we didn’t deserve to be a top 20, we probably wouldn’t beat a competitive team the rest of the year, and they couldn’t wait until Fletcher Loyer and Co. came next year. It set a record for “fastest a fan has ever quit on a team”.
Coach Painter is famous for saying “It is never as bad as you think or as good as you think”. The last four days have definitely shown that. Thursday proved that we are not some all-time team of immortals that will be discussed for centuries. Today’s final 11 minutes also proved that we’re not some team who will be lucky to win a game the rest of the season.
I think today was just an early course correction. We have seen them before. The Baby Boilers lost a home game to Wofford before nearly winning the Big Ten as freshmen. 2010-11 had an early neutral court loss to Richmond. Do I need to mention Gardner-Webb, North Florida, Western Kentucky? The 2018-19 team went into Christmas at 6-5 and had lost all four of its premier non-conference games. It won the Big Ten and came damn close to making the Final Four.
If Purdue makes the Big Ten Championship game and National Championship game it will play 40 games. We’re a quarter of the way there and Purdue is 9-1, with the one loss coming on a miraculous 40 foot heave. Yeah, we played like crap, but it is still a win without that tremendous shot. It is the only thing keeping us from being No. 1 for a second straight week, and we’ll almost certainly still be in the top 5.
We still needed a course correction. We needed to be challenged. We needed to respond to adversity, and today we did. With 6 minutes left Purdue was DONE. Iowa nearly pulled off a great comeback to beat us in Mackey. Rutgers played well and was worthy of getting the win. For 34 minutes, NC State was the far better team. For 114 minutes of basketball these three teams challenged Purdue harder than anyone else this season. Only Villanova had even come close, and Purdue hit the gas to dominate those closing minutes as well.
But with 6 minutes left today it looked a lot more like Purdue was going to lose by 20 than win by 10. Sure, the season would have been far from over, but going 0-2 after finally getting to No. 1, with one loss coming by double digits, was going to raise a lot of questions. There are still questions, but we have tape and time to improve while still winning two of these three.
And today, we had some immediate answers.
I don’t know why Purdue is a better team trailing by 6 with three minutes left instead of winning by six with three minutes left, but Thursday was like last year’s losses at Minnesota and Maryland, while today was like the win at Michigan State. Purdue seems to play tighter on the road up at that final media timeout, but saves its best for when it is trailing at that time. Today, we got better, and everyone was involved.
With 6:10 left Purdue trailed 58-46. It had scored only five points in the previous five minutes, and generally looked terrible in that time. The run started on a beautiful backdoor cut for a basket by Ethan Morton, then after a steal, Morton was fouled and hit two free throws. A second steal led to a Jaden Ivey basket and in the span of exactly one minute the lead was cut in half.
The teams traded points, but when Jericole Hellems hit a big basket with 1:58 left a NC State reserve gave a “shhhhhhh” gesture as the lead was back to six. There was still time, and the lead was halved again as Sasha Stefanovic hit a huge three after struggling all day. Ivey got a block, then Tre got an and-1. 67 seconds after being told to shut up the game was tied. Sasha would hit another huge runner, then a big three to start overtime, where Purdue dominated.
By no means was the season completely off the rails with six minutes left in regulation. Every goal for the year was well within reach. Still, a win like today can be huge. Purdue showed it can recover quickly. It showed that persistence pays off. It was a very rough day for Sasha, but in a two minute span he hit the game’s three largest baskets. Eric Hunter Jr. has taken a lot of flak, but he hit a couple big shots on Thursday night and today he had a couple big steals plus a great hustle basket in overtime. Zach Edey struggled, but Trevion Williams was right there with yet another monster game of 22 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 blocks, and several “We’re not losing this game or I will die trying” moments.
It should be familiar territory for Tre. After all, it was his coming out party in the 88-80 loss to Notre Dame when he was a freshman that helped spur that season’s course correction. Today wasn’t a must-win, but it can definitely be a win that refocuses the team and prevents them from falling into a funk. The last three games also show there is plenty to work on over the next few weeks.
As long as Purdue takes care of business in Indy next week it will go 11-0 outside of the conference. I think 16-4 wins the Big Ten, and that is very doable. I would have rather flipped a Rutgers win for an NC State loss this weekend if we were going to drop one because of the conference factor, but Purdue is still in full control to win the league and there is a lot of basketball to play. An 11-0 non-conference season and a 16-4 Big Ten mark with a league title is more than enough for a No. 1 seed in March.
Every goal for the season is still in play. We’re a miracle shot from being challenged, but undefeated and No. 1. There are questions, but there is plenty of time to answer them and even with them, 9-1 and in the top 5 is really good. If we find the answers we’re looking for, we’ll be just fine.