Yes, Purdue aims to add a Big Ten tourney title to its resume, but in the 21st Century, NCAA Tournament success is Priority No. 1.
So as the Boilers’ bask in the glow of an outright conference championship, capped by Sunday’s regular-season-ending 69-65 victory at NCAA tourney-bound Northwestern, they understand the most important work is about to begin.
“What’s at stake is our seeding in the NCAA Tournament,” center Isaac Haas says. “We know we’ll be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, but we want to improve that in the NCAA.
“We just have to take care of business.”
In theory, the better the NCAA tourney seed, the better the prospects of advancing.
Given the number of first weekend upsets that annually rock March Madness brackets, nothing is sure except that it’s all about matchups and playing to your potential.
Anyway, the No. 16 Boilers have lots of goals for the next few weeks. Winning their 23rd Big Ten title, courtesy of a 14-4 league record, was just one of them.
“We’re not done yet,” Haas says. “We have bigger aspirations. It’s like a stair case. You’ve got to take the next step forward.”
Perceived Big Ten weakness hurts Purdue’s NCAA tourney seed prospects. Besides the Boilers, No. 22 Wisconsin is the only other ranked conference team. Last month the NCAA Selection Committee didn’t have a single Big Ten team in its early Sweet 16 seed bracket.
Purdue projects as a No. 4 seed by CBSsports.com’s Jerry Palm and a No. 5 seed by ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi, with Milwaukee as the likely opening-round destination.
The only way to have a chance at playing in Indianapolis on the first weekend would be to earn a No. 3 seed. Winning this week’s conference tourney in Washington D.C. might open that possibility, but even then it would be difficult because there’s no chance for a nationally significant victory.
For the record, current projections have No. 8 Louisville as the No. 3 seed in Indianapolis.
It doesn’t help that the Boilers missed out on chances to beat No. 2 Villanova and Louisville during the regular season, but they did beat Wisconsin and No. 19 Notre Dame, and was impressively tough-minded in Sunday’s nationally televised victory. Likely Big Ten player of the year Caleb Swanigan recorded his 25th double-double of the season with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
“Any time you can win on the road against a NCAA tourney-caliber team, it helps your resume,” coach Matt Painter says.
Adds Haas: “We left some meat on the table with Louisville and Villanova. Those games hurt. At the same time, we can’t change the past. We have to win the Big Ten Tournament and improve our seeding.”
Purdue (25-6 overall) earned a conference tourney double bye, and will open play Friday at noon against the winner between Michigan (20-11) and Illinois (18-13). This is the first time they’ve had the No. 1 seed. They’ve only won it once — in 2009. They’ve finished second twice — in 1998 and last year.
As far as facing a top seed’s pressure, Haas says Purdue can handle it.
“That’s what we want, we want teams to give us their best shot. Having that challenge every day. It makes the game special. It makes it fun to play as hard as you can and get the win. We have to bring that into the Big Ten Tournament.”
Being the outright champ — Purdue won by two games over Wisconsin and Maryland — matters.
“Any time you’re able to win a championship,” Painter says, “it’s a great honor. If you have to share it, I don’t think it diminishes the actual championship, but you like to win it outright.”
Adds Haas: “It’s a special feeling. To come from being last three years ago to being outright champ, it means a lot. It’s something your work hard for. You go through a lot of blood, a lot of sweat and tears for.”
Three weeks ago, the Boilers were two games behind Wisconsin and everything was out of their control. But they won eight of their last nine while the Badgers lost five of six to clinch their second regular-season title under Painter.
“I talked to our guys two to three weeks ago that you have to do your part, but you’re going to get some help,” Painter says. “They got help. Things like that normally happen. We were fortunate to win more and be in a good position.”
Now they have to take full advantage of that good position.
The next step — win the Big Ten tourney.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at email@example.com.
UP NEXT: Purdue vs. Michigan/Illinois, Big Ten Tourney, Washington DC
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