WEST LAFAYETTE – It's too bad that the NCAA Tournament selection committee bases its criteria for post-season play on minutiae such as wins and losses, because if it took into account heart and who is playing well as of March 17 (otherwise known as Selection Sunday), then it would be Purdue, not Minnesota that would be making plans to battle in the coveted event.
The Boilermakers (15-16, 8-10 Big Ten) decided that the 12:06 p.m. tip-off meant that is when it was time to start playing, all the while the Golden Gophers (20-11, 8-10) showed up (figuratively) about an hour later. However, a mildly-impressive effort in the second half by Minnesota failed, as the Boilermakers won 89-73.
“We were able to get into a rhythm,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We got a little bit of everything. We got some hustle plays, got some transition baskets, and I thought our ball movement was pretty good. Getting off to that good start really helped us by giving us some confidence.”
Purdue raced out to a 21-point first half lead, as the Golden Gophers continued its middling play of late (they've lost six of their past nine games).
“I don't know why we weren't ready,” Gopher coach Tubby Smith said. “We didn't really push the ball up the court and we weren't defending. That's an early sign that you weren't ready to play.”
Minnesota will most assuredly receive a berth into the NCAA Tournament – its RPI is 20th (but will drop at the next calculation). However, what Smith's team exhibited Saturday was that it has significant difficulty getting motivated to play well away from home. It is quite the contrary when you watch Purdue play in recent outings.
“Purdue plays with heart,” Smith said. “They are playing with toughness, like all of Matt Painter's teams do.”
Purdue has now played well – if not actually winning – in each of its past five games (three of which were victories). However, nearly four months of mediocrity has placed Painter's team in an unenviable position and the coach knows it.
“I think we deserve some sort of post-season,” Painter said. “But to play in the NCAA, we're going to have to win the Big Ten Tournament. We just had too many bad losses early in the season. We weren't consistent enough in Big Ten play. We just dug ourselves a hole that was too big.”
The likelihood of earning a berth into the NCAA is not great, but with a couple of good games in the Big Ten Tournament, the Boilermakers have a legitimate shot at either the NIT or CBI events. And that is fine with Painter, as well as his players.
“If my two choices were to keep playing or just be done,” Purdue senior Dru Anthrop explained, “I would definitely keep playing. Every time that I get to put on the uniform and go out there with these guys and try to get a win, I'm going to do it.”
Depending on the outcome of the Illinois at Ohio State game on Sunday, it is possible that the Boilers, Gophers and Illini could each finish with 8-10 league marks, so the only certainty regarding the Big Ten Tournament schedule is that Purdue will play on the first day of the event (Thursday) at the United Center in Chicago.