Prior to the start of Big Ten play, nobody in their right mind thought that the words “NCAA tournament team” and “Purdue” would even be near the same sentence, let alone in it.
However, with just a week and a half left in February, the Boilermakers find themselves in second place in the Big Ten and firmly involved in the bubble hunt. How did this story evolve?
Purdue had a very underwhelming 8-5 run during its non-conference schedule. November witnessed a Maui win over BYU, which appears to be a reasonably solid squad (on the NCAA bubble at the moment), but that month also brought about a loss to Kansas State. Normally, a loss to Kansas State would be a very good loss, but with the Wildcats unlikely to make the tournament this year, it’s not as valuable a loss as it was supposed to be. Outside of a few upsets, the Wildcats have really struggled to get anything going this season.
If November was a mixed bag, December put the Boilermakers on life support. While the month gave the Boilers a boost with a home win over N.C. State, it brought the program an embarrassment when the team lost to North Florida at Mackey Arena. Following a couple of cupcake wins, Purdue lost three straight going into conference play. This included a loss at a marginal Vanderbilt squad, a 30-point setback at Notre Dame, and a home loss to Gardner-Webb.
At this point, many media members — including myself — had Matt Painter ready for the pink slip line and the Boilermakers down in the conference with Rutgers. However, the squad found a rhythm at just the right time.
The only four conference losses Purdue owns are at Wisconsin by seven, Maryland by nine at home, at Illinois by nine, and at Minnesota by four — all close losses to good competition.
What has been the difference for this squad? The answer is simple: balance.
A.J. Hammons has not been spectacular for this team, but he has been fairly consistent for Purdue, averaging 10.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest. His work has been supplemented by the production of Rapheal Davis and Jon Octeus. While Davis scored 22 and 18 points in his best non-conference performances, he’s developed consistency in Big Ten play. Davis averaged 9.2 points per game prior to Big Ten play, but 12.2 points per game through the first 13 conference games. Octeus had only three games in double-figure scoring in the non-conference portion of his season. Since the Big Ten schedule began, Octeus had compiled nine double-figure scoring games and a pair of other games with nine points. That accounts for 11 of the Boilermakers’ 13 Big Ten games so far.
Freshmen Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias have also given Purdue more quality minutes in recent weeks. This has compensated for the struggles of fellow freshman Isaac Haas, who was very strong in non-conference play but dipped in Big Ten competition. Kendall Stephens has been fairly inconsistent for the Boilermakers, but has shown that he can put the ball in the bucket at important times, enough to move this team forward.
This young Purdue squad just needed time to grow together, and it appears it finally has. This also sets up Painter well for the future. While he will lose Octeus to graduation and likely Hammons to the NBA, the core of this squad will largely be back next season.
After going to Indiana on Thursday for the second in-season installment of this annual rivalry, Purdue also travels to Ohio State and Michigan State before the season is over. The Boilermakers will have some opportunities to pick up quality wins down the stretch. It will be interesting to see if the Selection Committee punishes Purdue for early-season losses or if it recognizes the team’s improvement when it comes to the bubble-hugging Boilermakers.
The more one looks at Purdue, the more one is drawn to the idea that if this team treads water the rest of the way — winning just enough to avoid a precipitous fall in the standings but failing to clearly play its way into the field — a First Four assignment could be in the cards.
If you had offered that scenario to Boilermaker fans on New Year’s Day, they would have first laughed at you.
Then they would have asked, “Where can we sign?”