REGGIE HAYES: Purdue’s basketball team could be the Boilermakers’ greatest ever

Purdue guard Carsen Edwards, right, celebrates with teammate Vincent Edwards, left, after making a 3-point basket against Iowa on Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by the Associated Press)
Iowa forward Jack Nunge (2) drives to the basket between Purdue's Isaac Haas, left, and Vincent Edwards, right, on Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by the Associated Press)
Purdue head coach Matt Painter encourages his team as they play against Wisconsin last Tuesday in West Lafayette. (Photo by the Associated Press)
Purdue guard Dakota Mathias (31) goes to the basket as Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (4) defends on Jan. 9 in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Photo by the Associated Press)

Here’s a legitimate, loaded question for Purdue University men’s basketball fans: Are we watching the greatest Boilermakers team ever?

Are we witnessing something in 2017-18 bigger than the Big Dog, craftier than Brian Cardinal and more transcendent than the trio of Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell and Everette Stephens? Is this a sensory jolt to surpass Joe Barry Carroll? What about the 1969 NCAA runner-up led by Rick Mount?

Has Purdue coach Matt Painter built something that could top the best Boilermakers teams of the past?

There’s no way to be definitive until the season ends and we see whether this is the year Purdue finally reaches the Final Four, or even more, again.

If we’re talking about the most cohesive, effective team, this year’s squad deserves to be in the discussion. I’d argue it could even lead the discussion.

I look at this year’s team (19-2, 8-0 Big Ten, No. 3 in the country) and I see a full team in the purest definition of the term. There’s not a superstar along the lines of Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, Carroll or Mount. Those three are locks for the Mount Rushmore of Purdue hoops.

Glenn Robinson could keep Purdue in any game, and he had a quality running mate in Cuonzo Martin. Carroll had Keith Edmonson as his right-hand man. Mount’s team included Herm Gilliam and Billy Keller, two of the more renowned Boilermakers, along with 7-footer Chuck Bavis from Garrett. The 2000 team that reached the NCAA regional finals with Cardinal, Jaraan Cornell, Mike Robinson and others was an overachiever.

This year’s squad has a solid top five in Carsen Edwards, Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson. The lineup doesn’t drop off much with Matt Haarms and Ryan Cline. And it might be better defensively than it is offensively.

Mount’s team reached the NCAA championship game, losing to UCLA and the legend that became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Carroll’s team lost in the semifinal to UCLA. Robinson’s team lost to Duke and Grant Hill in the regional final. Cardinal’s team lost to Wisconsin in the regional final.

Of the best Purdue teams without a single superstar, this year’s squad resembles the cohesiveness and all-for-one, one-for-all vibe of the 1987-88 team led by the trio of Lewis, Mitchell and Stephens. That group, which lost in the regional to Kansas State and Mitch Richmond, also included big men Melvin McCants and Steve Scheffler, along with two Fort Wayne-area players, Tony Jones out of Northrop and Kip Jones out of Bellmont.

The 1987-88 team was among the favorites in the NCAA Tournament and the loss to Kansas State was one of the biggest disappointments of the Gene Keady era. Does that diminish the talent of that team? Certainly not. But we put so much stock in the NCAA Tournament that any judgment of the greatest team must include significant postseason success.

This year’s squad benefits from the era it plays in because Purdue posts a senior-heavy squad in a time when that is more the exception than the rule.

Thompson, Vincent Edwards, Mathias and Haas are seniors. Carsen Edwards, names Monday as co-Big Ten Player of the Week, is a sophomore, yet playing with the national team has given him a wealth of extra experience.

Watch this team play, and you see a team with the camaraderie that blossoms when a group grows up together. They were part of a great team last season with Caleb Swanigan in the mix. They’ve taken it up a notch this year.

Painter has found a way to cultivate that sometimes-elusive “all for one” mentality.

Painter was asked after the latest blowout win over Iowa why his team is so “opportunistic.”

“It starts with decision making,” Painter said. “P.J. Thompson is a very good point guard, solid, doesn’t get the most assists on our team. Mathias and Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards pass the ball. Cline comes off the bench and has a 3-1 assist-turnover ratio. We just have so many guys who can pass as well as shoot.”

Purdue ranks eighth in the NCAA in assists per game (18.3). And to say this team can shoot is an understatement. In the last eight games, Purdue has hit 103 of 208 three-point shots (49.5 percent). The last four games: 60 of 111 (54.1 percent). The Boilers rank third in the country overall in three-point percentage (43.7 percent), 12th in overall field goal percentage (50.3)

Purdue ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring margin, winning by an average of 22.6 points per game. The Boilers average 84.8 points per game, but allow only 62.2 per game.

Purdue is 10th in scoring defense, fourth in field goal percentage defense.

“From a rebounding standpoint, we’re not consistent,” Painter said recently, assessing any flaws in his team. “The other thing is we’ll get trigger happy.”

His team’s strength is its experience, without question.

“You don’t see many senior-laden teams, especially guys that are seniors who have been with you four years,” Painter said. “All of our senior guys are guys who have played. Carsen has played a lot of basketball, probably the most of any sophomore in the country because of his USA Basketball experience.”

So, is this Purdue’s best team ever? I would put Mount’s team first for now, even if it was a different era, closely followed by the Big Dog’s group.

This year’s team? It’s right here in the mix, depending on the final two months.

Fair or not, the NCAA tourney will be the determining factor of where this team ranks in Purdue history. March Madness has bitten many great Purdue teams. This could be the one that bites back.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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