REGGIE HAYES: Purdue comes up short again in basketball season full of promise but no payoff
For all of the love directed to the Purdue University men’s basketball team and its talented senior class, they’ve won nothing big this year.
A three-game losing streak derailed the regular-season Big Ten hopes and the Boilermakers finished second. A lackluster performance in a 75-66 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament championship game Sunday in New York’s Madison Square Garden ruined that run and they finished second.
The Boilermakers have won 28 games, and yet nothing of substance. That sounds like a slam, but sometimes the truth hits hardest. Anyone want to second that?
So now what?
Purdue (28-6) will sit out next week, thanks to the week-early Big Ten tourney, and await the NCAA Tournament pairings. The Boilers’ 6-4 record over their last 10 games puts their long-expected No. 2 seed at risk.
Let’s just say outside expectations have waned since that mid-season run where national analysts were listing Purdue as a Final Four favorite. The Boilermakers must be considered Final Four long shots now.
Their weaknesses have been exposed. When they don’t hit their three-pointers (they missed 13 of 17 on Sunday), the offense stagnates. Big man Isaac Haas can deliver with some consistency (23 points on 9-of-12 shooting vs. Michigan) but he’s not enough against a well-rounded team like Michigan. The Wolverines’ inside duo (Moritz Wagner and Jon Teske) combined for 31 points. Purdue’s defense has been erratic at best over the last month.
Then there’s sophomore Carsen Edwards, the Boilers’ best player.
When Edwards is on his game, spinning, breaking ankles and hitting threes from the next county, he’s magical. He’s been that way most of the season. When he’s off his game, forcing everything and laying bricks (4-of-16 shooting, 12 points vs. Michigan), Purdue can’t win.
So let’s take a step back, as Purdue will do this week, and speculate what happens next.
The most optimistic of Purdue fans would point to 10 or 11 days without a game as a chance for the Boilers to refresh their bodies and regain their mojo.
The least optimistic of Purdue fans would worry that the sour taste of Sunday will linger. The game concluded with coach Matt Painter benching Vincent Edwards near the end.
Which is more likely? Return of mojo or quick exit? I’d say it’s 50-50.
Carsen Edwards is so talented I can envision him regaining his touch in the first weekend and pushing Purdue into a Sweet 16. The four seniors of Haas, Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson have shown enough togetherness and moxie to dig even deeper for their final tournament run.
Painter should worry about facing teams like Michigan, teams that are relentless on defense, commit few turnovers, crash the boards well and have enough size to make Haas earn his points.
Also, Painter should worry about teams with coaches like John Beilein, coaches who know how to put their teams in the best position to win. Fortunately, Beilein is one of the best in the country, and he needed three games to make the maneuvers necessary to beat Purdue. The fresh wound of the loss to Michigan overshadowed the fact Purdue had beaten this team twice.
Purdue at its best is much better than it played Sunday. When the Boilers are at their sharpest, they’re much better than they played down the final stretch of the season. At one point this season, I speculated this could be Purdue’s best team ever. I might have jumped the gun on that one.
Can Purdue conjure its highest level of play again?
It depends in part on the NCAA Tournament pairings and who the Boilermakers end up playing. They won’t have the pressure of being a No. 1 seed. Painter has done a good job over the years of having his team prepared to open the NCAA Tournament. In his 12 years as Purdue coach, he has led them to seven first-round wins. Purdue has three appearances in the Sweet 16 under Painter.
The lofty outside expectations have lessened. Purdue will enter the NCAA Tournament as another strong power conference team that has yet to win anything. The opportunities are dwindling fast. In fact, there’s one left.
Did I say the pressure’s off? Check that. It’s about to be heavier than ever.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.