I started writing about Purdue sports in August of 2006, when I began this adventure as the creatively named “Boilermaker Football Blog. That first year I did only football, then it evolved into Off the Tracks before SB Nation picked it up and it was renamed as Hammer & Railed in February 2009. I am approaching 16 years of writing about Purdue sports, and some of you are still around from those very early days.
In that time I have written well over a million words about Purdue sports, with basketball often being at the center. The men’s basketball program is the premier program at Purdue. It carries our hopes and dreams more than others. Football had an unexpected 9-4 season with a bowl win and two top 5 upsets just months ago. That was a tremendous success and honestly about as good as it ever gets for us. Basketball though? That is the center.
It has led to some of the most painful columns I have written, such as the Little Rock collapse and the Virginia stomach punch. It has also led to some of the most hopeful writing I have produced, such as this year’s season primer, and last week’s one on catharsis, where it felt like we had finally slayed some of our most persistent March demons.
In 16 years, this may article be one of the hardest pieces I have written.
Sunday night it really felt like we had a breakthrough. The Texas game was the type of game we have seen Purdue lose a bunch, not only in previous NCAA Tournaments, but just this season alone. Finally, we had someone step up and hit the big shot to stop the collapse. Finally, we prevailed against the collective despair the fanbase often feels. Finally, this team was fulfilling the tremendous potential it had, and the path was wide to reach the Promised Land.
That feeling lasted five days.
There is a cruel irony in the way last night’s game ended. Four times this season, against Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, we saw our hopes and dreams crushed by a three-pointer in the waning seconds. After Jaden Ivey hit a three with 8 seconds left and Doug Edert hit a pair of free throws with four seconds left Purdue’s odds were long, but we were down only three and had at least a chance. Ivey got the ball and raced up the floor. He found his spot at the top of the key and released a decent shot as time expired. It was on line and for a brief second, there was a chance he was going to tie the game and give us new life in overtime.
It hit the rim, bounced up, then nicked it again as it harmlessly bounded off to the side.
Just like that, Purdue’s season of so much anticipation was over, and it ended in a cruel dark mirror of a missed three when four time our opponents made the big three as time wound down. It even came at the screen left basket like the Rutgers and Michigan State games.
I have nothing but respect for St. Peter’s. They struggled offensively, but were tenacious on defense. Their press did not cause turnovers in the back court, but it was disruptive in that it delayed Purdue getting the ball up the floor. That delay threw us off in getting into our half court sets where we could do so much damage. They played their game and earned the win.
Purdue had its good moments and bad last night. It started hot with Sasha Stefanovic hitting three 3’s, but the runs were counterbalanced with moments of dismal offense. The offense was terrible in the first five minutes of the second half. It wasn’t great in the last five minutes. Still, Purdue had a chance.
To me, the game was lost with 4:30 left. Purdue had the basketball with a four point lead and momentum. To that point we had several opportunities to build on a four point lead, but could not cash in. it was a key possession where Trevion Williams was blocked at the rim, then Ivey turned it over. St. Peter’s was fouled on a three-pointer on the next possession and hit all three free throws. Purdue After Tre scored to make to 56-52 with 5:17 left we would not get another made field goal until Mason Gillis got a putback with 25 seconds left that made it 63-61.
Those final five minutes played out like so many of Purdue’s losses in the last two years. We had a narrow lead and just needed solid execution on a handful of possessions, but could not get the job done. St. Peter’s did. They hit key baskets on offense and defensively they were disruptive enough that we could not convert. Because of that, they are the first 15 seed to reach the Elite Eight, and Purdue is once again the team history happens against.
I really don’t know what to say from here. It is not uncommon for Purdue basketball to be left wanting in March. That pain is an old friend, and I do not need to rehash all of those moments. This one feels different though. This Purdue team had such a unique balance of depth, talent, and experience that expectations were sky high before the first game even started. Then it reached the No. 1 ranking in early December for the first time ever. That was the high water mark, as the Rutgers loss marked the beginning of a steady decline. Yes, we stayed in the top 10 all year, but the gap between “very good” and “all-time great” grew wider each game.
That’s what makes this season so terribly frustrating. Purdue went 29-8. That’s a tremendous record, but there is no hardware. We were a win short of a Big Ten title, a win short of a Big Ten tournament title, and two wins short of a Final Four. Five of the losses were by a single possession. Two of the teams we beat, Villanova and North Carolina, are now a step away from the Final Four, so we know we are good enough to win in the next round. There are also two double digit seeds in Miami and St. Peter’s still alive, while we are not.
Purdue has failed to advance in March for numerous reasons, but this year especially stings because it carries with it a “if not now, then is this thing ever going to happen,” feeling. We had the talent. We had the depth. We had the experience. We had a lottery pick, dominant post players, and good shooters. We even had the broken bracket wide before us, and, as it turns out, a team we had already beaten waiting in the Elite Eight. Everything was there, but we could not convert.
Less than 24 hours later I cannot help but question if this will ever happen. Matt Painter is not going anywhere, nor should he go anywhere. Even in a rebuilding year next year I expect to win 22-24 games and reach the tournament. Painter has built the program to the point that we are going to have regular chances at Big Ten titles and in March.
But when will we cash in?
As a fan I just feel empty right now. I can’t imagine how the players feel, as they gave us everything and it just didn’t work out. that is the cruelty of this tournament. Sometimes the shots don’t fall, the ball doesn’t bounce your way, and you’re out. Baylor, Kentucky, Arizona, Gonzaga, and Auburn all had just as high of hopes as we did, this year, and they all went no further than us. It was the opposite of Sunday’s catharsis. I struggled to sleep last night and, while I am grateful I can at least function today unlike earlier this year, that empty feeling of a season of such promised going unfulfilled will last a while.
I don’t know what to do when our best shot on paper went unfulfilled. We’re never going to get another chance like this. It hurts because we saw how good this team could be even in spurts last night. It hurts because of 2019, when we came as close as you can get to the Promised Land without actually going. It hurts because this team was 29-8, but a handful of plays from being 34-3 right now. It hurts because even with turnovers, a bad game from Ivey, and a plethora of missed open threes when we were statistically one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, we were STILL right there. It hurts to lose, but when you barely lose because you played poorly in so many aspects it hurts even more.
As I said, there will be other chances. Coach Painter is going to be around for a while whether you like it or not and we will reach more Sweet 16s. I am 100% confident in that. There is promise coming in recruiting, and this team is still going to be good enough to make the tournament (thus it will have a chance) for years to come. When I see teams like George Mason, Butler, VCU, Wichita State, and Loyola-Chicago make Final Fours and we can’t it hurts. When my No. 2 team in Miami, whose fans care about 100th as much about basketball as we do, reaches the Elite Eight as a 10 seed it hurts even though I am elated for them. St. Peter’s has earned their spot in the next round, but when it comes at our expense it is cold comfort. All of those examples show that merely by making the tournament you have a chance at a deep run, but Purdue had its best chance maybe ever and it wasn’t enough. I don’t think we’re greedy as Purdue fans. I just want one Final Four. it is my sports white whale now that the Cubs won the World Series. Even actually winning a Final Four feels like asking too much, but when we can’t even get that despite having a dozen teams being more than good enough to get there you have to question if it will ever happen.
When the 2019 season ended I was confident that it was only a matter of time before we made a Final Four. After this year, I am not so sure. This was supposed to be THE team. It was THE year. When I see tweets like these from our closest rivals, you know you’re close:
If someone told me in December that Purdue would finish the year without a conference championship, conference tournament championship and they wouldn’t get past the sweet 16 I would’ve called you crazy, they were playing so damn good.— Martha the Mop Lady (@TheMopLady) March 26, 2022
Matt Painter has won a ton of games at Purdue and he rightfully gets a ton of credit but when the bright light come on his team’s continuously underperform, you’ll never have an easier path to the Final 4 than Purdue just pissed away. I honestly thought this was the year.— Martha the Mop Lady (@TheMopLady) March 26, 2022
Is this thing ever going to happen? If it does, all those past scars will finally heal. We’re going to have chances again. Of that, I have no doubt. This entire week I started to believe again. I started to think that some time Sunday evening that burden of waiting would finally be released. Instead, we’re going to wait a while longer, and for the first time in a long time, I am doubting if we can ever actually cash in on these chances. For the first time in a while the thought of a Purdue Final Four is back to “if” instead of “when” because this team was supposed to be THE team, and if it couldn’t do it, then who would?
That’s why this hurts even more.
And yes, I will be right back there in November, ready to be hurt again.