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Purdue Basketball: Growing Pains

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Remember that patience I talked about in October?

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NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s rewind to October.

We had no idea what we were going to get from Purdue basketball. We knew we had some known commodities:

  • Trevion Williams was going to be an all-Big Ten caliber player in the middle.
  • Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic were experienced guards.
  • Aaron Wheeler was a player that has struggled, but was expected to provide veteran minutes.
  • Isaiah Thompson was a sophomore that had some freshman moments, but also gained valuable experience.
  • We knew that the toughest Big Ten, top to bottom, perhaps ever was a daunting task in front of us.
  • There were no seniors at all, and the two most experienced players departed early to supposedly greener pastures.
  • We were picked to finish as low as 10th in the league.

That is what was known. Pretty much everyone else in the league had more experience than the Boilers. We were going to give five freshmen significant run, and while they are talented, they weren’t the heralded Michigan Fab Five in the early 90s. One freshman had not played a competitive game in two years. Another was a raw center that had played baseball and hockey longer than basketball. A third was recovering from mono.

That is why I wrote on October 13th that patience was needed. The Big Ten itself was this daunting:

It also doesn’t help that the Big Ten is going to be absolutely loaded this coming year. The latest ESPN bracketology had nine teams getting in from the conference this coming year, and there was a somewhat plausible argument last season for 12 because even with Purdue’s record it had at least a small chance at an at large bid before everything was shut down. Iowa (!?!) and Wisconsin were projected as 2 seeds in the latest bracketology. Michigan State is still Michigan State. Illinois is going to be really good. Michigan and Ohio State have talent. Rutgers is going to be solid. Even Indiana has a lot of talent and could overcome Archie Miller’s Archie-ness.

It always felt like this was a “just make the tournament and build for 2021-22” year. We have seen it before. It still would have been improvement over last year’s inconsistent bunch. Coach Painter’s 2006-07 year did that. The 2014-15 and 2015-16 laid the foundation for three straight Sweet 16s. If you had told me on November 1st that by mid-February Purdue would be at 13-8 overall, 8-6 in the Big Ten with road wins at Michigan State, Ohio State, and Indiana, and ranked 24th in both the NET and AP Poll, I would have taken it. Anybody would have. Instead of fighting for one of the last tourney spots that would have meant Purdue was solidly in by pretty much any metric.

It is safe to say that Purdue is ahead of schedule, and we have seen it before. We’re not nearly as ahead of schedule as 2007-08 when the Baby Boilers nearly stole a Big Ten title, but things are definitely looking up for the next two seasons even if it means 2021-22 becomes like 2008-09, up and down before a strong finish.

There are those whispers of “this team is going to be soooooooo good” and we can see it. That’s why these last two road games have been so frustrating. We know we can be (and will be) better.

That 8-6 Big Ten record is basically two defensive stops from 10-4. After flat out stealing wins at Michigan State and Ohio State there is definitely a bit of “then why couldn’t we close out worse teams in Maryland and Minnesota?” Indeed, Purdue has lead three games (Miami, Maryland, and Minnesota) by multiple possessions at the final media timeout. It led Illinois by 6 in the second half. It trailed Rutgers by 1 with roughly three minutes left. Only against Iowa, Clemson, and Michigan was the game really over before the final five minutes.

The three M’s (Miami, Maryland, and Minnesota) seem more acute though. They are games Purdue probably should have won, even if it probably should have lost against Michigan State, Ohio State, and maybe even Maryland at home. Against Miami Purdue was already in freefall at the last media timeout. A 20+ point lead was almost blown, the offense was basically non-existent, and the Hurricanes had all the momentum. Against Maryland a desperate Terrapin team just made plays with two critical defensive stops and some key baskets.

Last night seemed to fall into the “bad luck” category. Twice in the last 70 seconds Trevion Williams was able to score a tough basket inside when we needed it. Twice Marcus Carr hit huge threes after a fortuitous bounce. The first, with 1:07 left, Tre got a huge block at the rim on Jamal Mashburn Jr., but the ball bounced around and found Carr for a three. It was at least the third time that Purdue seemingly had a stop or turnover only for the ball to bounce just right to a Minnesota player for a big three. Then with 18 seconds, Carr banked in a hero ball three that is just a tough break. It is frustrating, but those things happen in close games. Minnesota had a lot of lucky bounces, Purdue was 2 of 17 from three, and we had the usual Bo Boroski nonsense (por ejemplo, Gabe Kalscheur cross-checking Sasha to the floor to get an open three he buried with 2:50 left). It was a frustrating loss that was very similar to Maryland, only with more bad luck.

It was also just a sign of growing pains.

This is still an extremely young Purdue team. The earlier wins in East Lansing and Columbus are fantastic, but they can lead to some impatience when things like the last two road games happen. Even last night there was growth. Against Maryland I feel like we just got outplayed in the final 90 seconds. Against Minnesota those two dumb luck plays loomed very large and we still were able to execute big plays to the for scores.

It sucks, but there is still a lot of basketball to be played. We have six regular season games, the Big Ten Tournament, and the NCAA Tournament. If Purdue completes the sweep of Michigan State and Indiana and sweeps both Nebraska games (if they happen) that is more than enough to be just fine on selection Sunday, and even have a decent 5-7 seed. Next year at this time it will be Purdue that is the experienced team while the rest of the league is replacing established players. Lessons are being learned before our very eyes. I am not saying that Purdue will automatically win every close game the next two seasons, but we are seeing improvement. We are seeing the confidence of Jaden Ivey. We’re going to see Ivey and Newman become consistent double digit scorers and two guys that can combine to go for 45 on any given night. We’re seeing Mason Gillis become a billionaire’s Grady Eifert. We’re seeing Edey grow. We’re seeing Ethan Morton slowly come along and play with poise.

Most importantly, we’re still ahead of schedule. Even at 4-2 over the next six (a reasonable expectation and we’re fully capable of doing even better) we’ll be just fine for a possible run in March.

The growing pains will be worth it, and the best really is ready to begin (as long as we have each other).