Purdue is just 14-16 (7-10 Big Ten), but Wednesday's game – along with its recent efforts at Iowa and Wisconsin - put on display that eighth-year coach Matt Painter's harping has finally gotten through to this immature group.
“I think you see teams at this time of year have an outlier game, where they play well at home against a really good team,” Painter said. “The fact that we played a top 20 team on the road like Wisconsin and got a great win (69-56 last Saturday), and then put ourselves in position to win this game, it's unfortunate that we couldn't come away with a victory for our guys' confidence.”
Who has to be confident moving forward are the Boilermaker fans.
While it is true that the Wolverines (25-5, 12-5) scored on each of its possessions in the final 4:38 to rally for the win, Purdue had just three players show up (figuratively) offensively and still almost won the game.
“At times, you are just trying to get a win to keep your sanity, as a player and as a coach,” Painter said. “For these guys, they've worked really hard to make some strides to this point. We just don't quite piece it together.”
The Boilermakers got 60 of its 75 points from the trio – each of whom return next season – of Terone Johnson (32 points), Fort Wayne native Rapheal Davis (15) and Sandi Marcius (13). For Johnson and Marcius, Wednesday's outputs marked career-bests.
Purdue dug itself a 19-7 hole, but much like it did against Wisconsin, where it trailed by 13 in the first half, the Boilermakers demonstrated some grit, which has not always been the case this season.
Painter's team rallied and ultimately led 52-40, before Michigan began to play like a team that still has a chance to win the league title.
There have been ample opportunities over the past month for Purdue to call it a season and look forward to spring break. And at times, it appeared that this group had done just that. However, over the past eight days, the Boilermakers have strung together three strong performances (they outrebounded Michigan 42-30) and there'll be no team that looks forward to facing this team in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
The only significant player in the Purdue rotation that graduates is senior wing D.J. Byrd, and against the Wolverines, he essentially failed to show up – again – at the offensive end. Byrd connected on just one of his seven shots, which marked the 13th time this season that he has hit three or fewer shots.
Looking ahead, Purdue got solid defense from freshman point guard Ronnie Johnson, great play from Marcius and Davis, and Terone Johnson looked like the All-Big Ten player that Painter has stated that the junior guard has the ability to be.
Freshman center A.J. Hammons failed to begin the game by showing much heart (Painter benched him just 42 seconds into the game), which has been an occasional occurrence. However, after Marcius subbed in for Hammons and clearly outplayed the highly-rated recruit, everyone in the building took notice – including Hammons, who played much harder after his benching.
“The fans are pretty educated, they know what's going on,” Painter said. “People just want to see somebody play hard. (Sandi) continued to play hard and gave us energy, and he has a positive outlook. He's got a smile on his face and he's happy to be here.”
Marcius isn't the only one with a “positive outlook.” Finally in this season, the same could be said about this entire program.