REGGIE HAYES: Purdue fans would love to feel confident about NCAA Tournament, but they know better

Purdue center Isaac Haas reacts as he walks down the court after a Purdue turnover to Michigan during the Big Ten Tournament title game March 4 in New York. Michigan won 75-66. (Photo by the Associated Press)

I defy anyone to find less confident fans heading into the NCAA Tournament than Purdue Boilermakers fans.

I’m not talking about fans of UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), who know their team will be throttled by No. 1 overall seed Virginia. Fans of the Retrievers are giddy to be dancing at all. I’m talking about the most fatalistic fans of a big-time alleged contender.

No fans, collectively, are less confident than Purdue fans.

It has nothing to do with their strong love for the team and the senior foursome of Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Isaac Haas. It has nothing to do with their exuberance and awe over the many incredible moves of sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. This isn’t about loyalty. Loyalty is not an issue. Purdue fans are as loyal as Chicago Cubs fans, pre-World Series championship, and actually much like Cubs fans, pre-title.

This is about bracing for, and expecting, the worst.

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Purdue fans’ loyalty is an unrewarded loyalty. True, sometimes the Boilermakers win the Big Ten – more than any other school, actually – and have some thrilling games. But when it comes to the NCAA, to reaching the Final Four, which is ultimately the goal every year, it’s a drought of near-biblical proportions.

Purdue hasn’t made it to the ultimate round of March Madness since 1980.

This is some well-earned Purdue pessimism.

Occasionally, there’s a flicker of hope. The Boilers went to the Sweet 16 last season, where they lost to Kansas in a blowout. But the two years prior to that, they exited in the first round.

Here’s a true story, from press row, the distilled essence of Purdue’s perceived – and often accurate – tournament fate:

It’s the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Fifth-seeded Purdue is up 13 points on 12th-seed Arkansas Little Rock with 3:33 left to play. The local Denver reporter, sitting next to me, is writing the lead paragraph on his game story about Purdue winning. I lean over and tell him: “This isn’t over.”

He looks at me as if I’m from Mars. Or maybe Bloomington. I shrug.

Purdue blows it, ends up losing in double overtime. I hate being right sometimes.

Like Cubs fans, pre-World Series, Purdue fans theoretically hold the “this could be our year” mindset every time a new season rolls around.

This year could be the one, right? There was a point this season where Purdue won 19 straight games. Surely they can get hot from three-point range, take advantage of playing teams less familiar with their style than Big Ten opponents, and reel off four straight to reach that elusive Final Four?

ESPN Insider Bill Doherty wrote this: “With four senior starters, Purdue fits the profile of the past two veteran teams to win the NCAA tournament, Villanova and North Carolina. In addition to experience, the Boilermakers can efficiently score from all three levels — in the paint, in the midrange and from long distance. This team won’t be an easy out.”

Purdue fans would agree with their minds. When they think with their hearts, they sigh.

Pessimistic Purdue fans (presuming somewhere, somehow, there’s another kind) brace for the disappointment.

Pessimistic Purdue fans know it’s just as likely, if not more so, that the No. 2 seed for this year’s Boilers will come with a curse. If they make it past Cal State-Fullerton in the first round on Friday, they’ll end up facing the winner of Arkansas vs. Butler on Sunday.

Now that’s just cruelty on the part of the NCAA selection committee.

Butler fans are the opposite of Purdue fans. They’re completely confident at tourney time, fully expecting the Butler magic Brad Stevens left in the supply room a few years ago guarantees NCAA tournament thrills. Purdue beat Butler by 15 points in the regular season. Show me a Purdue fan who believes that would happen again and I’ll show you a Purdue employee. A Purdue employee who’s lying.

Purdue fans have every right to be pessimistic. The tournament has not been kind to the Boilers. It wasn’t kind to Gene Keady, who won and won and won but never enough to reach the Final Four. It hasn’t been kind to Matt Painter, who’s had a Keady-like run of his own.

Earlier this season, in the midst of that massive winning streak, this felt like it might be Purdue’s year, its Chicago Cubs breakthrough. Then, a three-game losing streak. Then, the fizzle of the Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan.

If it’s March and Purdue fans are nauseous, you know the Madness is upon us.

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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