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And Down the Stretch They Come!

As the season draws to a close can Purdue find another gear?

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

I was a runner in high school. Cross country and track. For those unfamiliar a cross country race in high school is a 5K or 3.12 miles. In track I competed in everything from the 4x800 relay to the mile, the 800, the 4x400 relay, and the two mile. I was good. Well, good for a small town in Indiana good. Not good in like the grand scheme of the universe good. But, I was good enough. Good enough that I won a lot of races. My sophomore year on the cross country team I was the team MVP and all conference. I say this not to brag, well maybe I’m bragging a little, but to point out what happened next. My junior year my teammate came back better than ever. He beat me more times than I could ever remember being beaten by a teammate. It was frustrating. See, the thing was Vince, that was his name, had a better kick than me. If he was close to me with around 200 meters to go he was going to pass me. It happened too many times to count. I would be in front the whole race and suddenly as we headed down the homestretch I could hear his cadence, I could hear his breathing, then suddenly he was past me.

So what did I do? I mean, what could I do? I wasn’t suddenly going to become faster so I had to become smarter. I had to know where he was at all times. I had to be able to sense him on my shoulder and push him beyond his kick. See, I still believed I was the better runner I just had to wear him out before we could get to the kick. I had to extend my lead. So, with roughly a mile to go each race I would gradually pick up the pace. I would put more distance between us than he could close. And if he stayed with me, all the better because he wouldn’t have as much gas in the tank. It worked. I had to do the same thing during track as well. I knew that on the last lap I had to take off with 300 meters to go in order to avoid him running me down. I knew, because I learned about my opponent. I learned his tendencies and I learned his strengths. And in so doing I learned more about myself as a runner. I lost some races as I tinkered with my plan of course but at the end of the season I’d won more than I’d lost.

So why did I just take 444 words to tell you about my high school running exploits while I sit here at the age of 37? Because there’s a lesson in it. There’s a lesson that I hope this Purdue team is learning, that they’re taking to heart. People are going to be beat you, they are going to challenge you, they might have different strengths than you but that doesn’t mean they’re better than you. It means you’ve got to grow, and learn, and change. To start the season Purdue faced a handful of difficult teams, perhaps in retrospect none more challenging than Marquette, and responded to every challenge. They fought off the kick and emerged victorious. During Big Ten season they’ve stumbled a bit. Rutgers passed them down the stretch, IU punched them in the mouth, and Northwestern wore them down with some, ahem, questionable defensive tactics. All these losses stung. You wish you could have them back, but you can’t. They’re on the record. Three losses on the season. But what can the team learn from this? How can they respond?

Following the loss to Rutgers they rattled off nine conference victories in a row including five on the road. After the loss to IU they took down a pesky Iowa team by double digits. After Northwestern? Well, that’s still up in the air. Tonight is the night when Purdue faces maybe its most difficult test of the year. The Big Ten race has tightened. A race that seemed all but over just two weeks ago now sees Purdue up by just two games with five games remaining. Now the pressure begins to mount. We can hear Northwestern and IU coming up behind us. We can hear their stride, their breathing is labored as they expend their energy to catch up. Tonight, Purdue has a chance to pour it on and extend their conference lead. To show the teams behind them that they’ve grown, they’ve learned, they’ve improved. Tonight is the night we truly see how this young team responds to adversity.

How do Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer respond to the freshman wall and the rumblings that Purdue can’t go far in the Big Dance because they lack elite guard play? How does Zach Edey respond to the renewed buzz about Trayce Jackson-Davis being mentioned in the player of the year race? Tonight can tell the story for the rest of the year. Does Purdue learn and grow and respond? Or do they simply try to do the same thing and watch as their competitors come around them as the race comes to a close. This is still Purdue’s race to win, they just have to learn from the past.