Why not beat Duke, Purdue coach Matt Painter asked. Why not win two more South Region games, this time in Houston, and make the Final Four in Indianapolis?
Yes, All-Big Ten forward Robbie Hummel will be there only as a spectator, his surgically repaired right knee months from full health. Yes, top-seeded Duke (31-5) with its Hall of Fame coach and all-star lineup looms on Friday night. Even history favors the Blue Devils — the fourth-seeded Boilers (29-5) are 0-4 against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tourney.
Big deal, Painter said.
“After Rob went out I talked to our guys about continuing to dream. We had talked about winning a Big Ten championship, a Big Ten tourney championship and going to the Final Four. Why can't we do that now? You won't do it if you stop dreaming. You've got to keep dreaming.
“We won the Big Ten without Rob. We struggled a bit in the Big Ten tourney, but our guys keep fighting. That is very important. You never know what can happen in this tournament.”
Purdue has advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year and 10th time overall. Doing so without Hummel adds to the achievement.
“It's about understanding how you play,” Painter said. “We play differently now that Rob isn't there. Sometimes it's not real pretty. Sometimes we struggle to score, but we can still defend, rebound and play hard. Those are the things we've been able to do in wins. In the losses we just struggled offensively.
“Sometimes when the wheels fall off, like they did against Michigan State and Minnesota, it's good because guys have to look in the mirror and say, Hey, this is going to happen again if we don't get ready to play, play defense, play hard and do the little things to help this team win.”
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Here's a shock – Purdue is not favored to beat Duke and advance to the Elite Eight Sunday against either St. Mary's (28-5) or Baylor (27-7).
Senior guard Keaton Grant wouldn't want it any other way.
“We need somebody to tell us we're going to lose in Houston,” he said. “We're used to it. It's fine with us. We're used to being the underdogs.”
Plenty of experts picked Purdue to lose to Siena and Texas A&M. Beating those teams convinced few that the Boilers can overcome a Duke team that has steamrolled its first two opponents behind its all-ACC trio of guards Jon Scheyer (18.1 points, 4.9 assists) and Nolan Smith (17.2 points), and swingman Kyle Singler (17.7 points, 7.0 rebounds).
“A lot of people still count us out,” forward JaJuan Johnson said. “We like it that way. It's working out for us. We're running with it.”
The goal is to run to Indianapolis as a Final Four team.
“We're trying to get back home, not our Purdue home, but Indiana,” Grant said. “That's all we're trying to do. We just finished a two-game tournament. Now we go to Houston for another two-game tournament. Hopefully we can win this one.”
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Purdue's 29 victories tie a school record. Its 56 wins over the past two seasons is a school record and ranks fourth in the country.
Duke and Kansas are first with 60 victories over the past two seasons. Syracuse has 58. Utah State has 57.
The Boilers' 81 victories over the past three seasons also are a school record.
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For the record, Purdue isn't satisfied with its second straight Sweet 16 shot.
“A lot of people will say it's a great accomplishment to make it this far without Rob,” guard Chris Kramer said, “but you always have to want more. You can never be satisfied.”
The fact that Friday's game is against Duke, a perennial national contender that dominated the Boilers at Mackey Arena last season, 76-60, is a big motivator.
“We didn't have a good showing,” Johnson said. “We were young. This time we have more experience. We're more poised.
“We didn't know how hard they played. We know it now. We'll be ready to play.”