It’s that simple.
Yes, it’s about matchups, and the Boilers (25-7) should do just fine in that area against Vermont (29-5), the under-sized champs of the America East Conference.
Should — if they do the little things like make free throws, make layups and limit turnovers.
But for now, consider this — sometimes gain comes from pain.
There is no guarantee. The Boilers can learn from recent NCAA tourney failures and refuse to repeat them.
Or, they can go through life knowing they blew the best team basketball opportunity they’ll ever have.
It’s their choice.
Mind matters more than physical, you see, especially under one-and-done pressure.
At least it does this first weekend.
“There’s no pressure,” forward Caleb Swanigan says. “It’s just a game. It’s not anything life threatening. We’re doing what we’ve been doing for a while.”
Here is junior center Isaac Haas, fresh off of a bitter Big Ten tourney defeat to Michigan, when the Boilers did everything they needed to do to win the game, and everything they needed to do to blow it.
They blew it.
“This really (stinks),” he says. “We wanted to bring home a tourney ring. Things happen. We broke down defensively. We have to work as hard as we can and let this fuel us in the NCAA Tournament. We have a little more time to work on our stuff.”
Maybe the weekend off will help. Rest is crucial this time of year, and the Boilers will have less wear and tear than they did last season, when they lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten tourney title game, and then collapsed four days later against Arkansas-Little Rock in their NCAA tourney opener in Denver.
Of course, they’ve also had more time to let doubt creep in, but negativity isn’t in the game plan.
“We’ll have to bring it,” Haas says. “I still haven’t won a NCAA Tournament game. Nobody in this locker room has. It’s a matter of keeping that focus and moving on.”
Purdue has had the late lead in its last two NCAA tourney games and lost both, to Cincinnati in 2015 and then to Little Rock, by a combined three points.
The Boilers, fresh off a Big Ten regular season championship, had a chance to earn a No. 3 NCAA tourney seed and play in Indianapolis by winning the conference tourney title for the second time under coach Matt Painter.
That didn’t happen.
Where does that leave them?
Their preparation and play will answer that.
“We have to just keep working,” Haas says. “We’ve had a couple extra days to get in the gym. We’ll have some hard practices to get our minds right and move forward. We’ll have to step up our game defensively. Keep winning and do what we have to do.”
What Purdue really has to do is win multiple games. Beat Vermont and it will play again Saturday against the winner between No. 4 seed Iowa State (23-10 and the Big 12 tourney champ) and Nevada (28-6). Win that game and it faces a potential Sweet 16 showdown in Kansas City against top-seed Kansas (28-4).
Are these Boilers better suited for a long March Madness run than the last two?
“I think so,” Painter says. “We’re better offensively. We’re a better shooting team. We have more versatility.
“Last year we were rigid. Certain things bothered us. We didn’t have enough decision makers and ballhandlers on the floor. That’s on me. I felt we needed to stay with more of a defensive and rebounding group
“Adding (freshman guard Carsen Edwards) and (Michigan transfer guard Spike Albrecht) improved the backcourt. Now we have a lot of decision makers on the floor. We have multiple looks with Haas and (Big Ten MVP Caleb) Swanigan or Swanigan and Carsen or Haas and Carsen. That gives us better offensive production.
“We’re not as good defensively as last year. We don’t have a shot blocker. We’re not a great defensive team, but at times we’re pretty good.”
Vermont is not an offensive juggernaut. It averages 73.6 points with three players averaging in double figures – forwards Anthony Lamb (12.6 points) and Payton Henson (11.4 points), and guard Trae Bell-Haynes (11.1). It can’t come close to Purdue’s imposing size.
The roster includes forward Josh Speidel, the former Columbus North standout still recovering from a serious car accident that resulted in a significant brain injury.
However, the Catamounts have won 21 straight, the nation’s longest streak. Their last loss came against Butler on Dec. 21, but their best win is against Harvard, ranked No. 111 in the kenpom ratings.
No matter. It’s a game Purdue has to win.
“It’s the landscape of college basketball that you get judged on how you play in the NCAA tournament,” Painter says. “Whether that’s fair or unfair, that’s the way it is.
“With the way March Madness has grown, you get judged on these next two to three weeks.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
UP NEXT: Purdue (25-7) vs. Vermont (29-5), NCAA tourney, Milwaukee
TIPOFF: 7:27 p.m., Thursday
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