As promised, here's the first deep-dive into the rough-and-tumble that is off-court Purdue men's basketball.
This program – not just this team, but this program – has an ingrained mental issue, and progress will be stunted until this is solved. Purdue churning out Big Ten conference contenders (and occasionally winners) which ignominiously fail come March has become so commonplace it is now a state of mind, and it goes back further than the past three years’ upset losses to progressively larger double-digit seeds. I saw it the last several minutes in the game when multiple shooters passed up wide-open outside shots. I see it as part of a perpetually nervous fan base that has learned to not trust lofty regular season resumes. Most painfully, I see (and hear) it from opponents’ supporters who bust my chops regularly, both before and after each successive letdown.
My personal belief is it began in 1987 when the Big Ten co-champion team that year got blasted by 19 points against lower-seeded Florida. The season-ending losses continued thereafter:
- As a 1 seed to 5th-seeded Kansas State in 1988
- As a 7 seed to 10th-seeded Temple in 1991 by 18 points
- As a 1 seed to 8th-seeded Georgia in 1996
- As a 5 seed to 12th-seeded UALR in 2016
Some aren’t about seeding as much as point spread. While 6th-seeded Temple was higher-seeded than the Boilers (10th) in 1999, after beating the 7th and 2nd seeds (the latter by 10 points), how did they lose by 22 points?
I watched the same scene play out year after year: a promising Purdue team (at least on paper) go to the tournament and get ousted by a team which changed its game plan to neutralize Boilers’ strength, whether from the start or during the game and send it home before its time, sometimes in ignominious fashion. A strong will is admirable in a leader, but the best ones also know how to adjust with their surroundings. Moreover, the past week has shown this is a widely acknowledged issue. Coach, change your game approach when it’s clear the opposition will prevent you from executing Plan A.
Outside of Zach Edey, few pundits and observers give anyone on this roster a real chance in the pros; I’m not necessarily in that camp, but that’s a subject for later. This team does have depth and a relative diversity of talent – a sound basis for constructing a team to meet a variety of threats.
Get past being the short end of a good story. Let’s face it: money makes the college basketball world go ‘round, and any injection of true unpredictability pays serious dividends to all invested. For that reason – as well as the genuine history played out – last year’s first-ever 15th seed progressing to the Elite 8 and this year’s second-ever 16th seed win are great for business. The same is true of Michigan’s improbable run to the Big Ten tournament title as an 8th seed after recovering from an airplane mishap in 2017. Here’s hoping that sooner or later, the laws of probability and averages meet up and another major program becomes the short in a feel-good saga. Until that time, however, find a way to develop mental toughness; not the kind that traditionally outrebounds the opponent, though that’s important … not the kind where the smallest guy on the team takes a charge, admirable as that is … but the kind that doesn’t believe it's beat even in a hostile crowd, rises above home-town officiating, ignores the past 40 years’ relative futility and decides this one will be different, and finally is both willing and able to deviate from the original plan when the situation and opponent call for it. I don’t say this lightly, but it may call for clinical counseling for the team.