Purdue didn’t look half bad last night, though I still hold fast that they are really more of a collection of athletes than they are basketball players. But, they did (and have been since B1G play started) do something that I think every Boiler fan has been imploring them to do. They played through AJ Hammons.* Since Brad Miller left, Purdue hasn’t had a true center, at least not that I remember. They’ve gotten by on remarkable guard play, tough perimeter defense, and having just enough inside to get by. But since Hammons and Simpson have gotten to Purdue, that has changed. They now have forces to be reckoned with inside. And when this team plays through them, good things happen.
*And, to a lesser extent, Jay Simpson.
Nothing against Illinois, but Purdue has flat had their number. Thanks to Ohio St., Purdue can no longer claim to have a winning record against every other school in the conference, but they’re still up on ten of the eleven other schools. So, clearly, Purdue is going to have the historic edge on Illinois.* Which they do, now standing at 97-85. But, Purdue has now won nine out of the last ten meetings, losing only the game in Champaign last year.** To that point, last night’s game never felt, to me, anyway, nearly as close as it actually was. It felt like whenever Purdue needed a basket, they simply gave it to Hammons, or used Hammons as a decoy to get whatever shot they wanted. Illinois had to work much harder for their offense and were bailed out more than once by contested threes late in the shot clock. If Purdue had more skill players, they would have turned into a cakewalk.
*To that point, during the Michigan St.-Northwestern game, they flashed a graphic about most coaching wins in the Big Ten, because Tom Izzo is now tied with Lou Henson for fourth all time. First is, predictably, Bobby Knight. But two and three on that list are, tellingly, Purdue legends with Gene Keady and Ward “Piggy” Lambert. I also bring this up because Lambert was from Crawfordsville and played basketball and baseball at Wabash, thus he is in the Hall of Fame both at Wabash and Purdue. It might not be as well known that Lambert did also coach the Boilermaker baseball team, which is why both the former basketball arena (now indoor track) and the former baseball stadium (now swallowed up by the expanded co-rec, I believe) are named for him.
**Side point: Illinois’ basketball twitter sent out a note before they played Wisconsin to let the world know they had won in Madison more than any other team since 2005 with three wins. Purdue’s twitter quickly corrected them, pointing out wins in 2008, 2009, and 2013. That led to Illinois apologizing and correcting their tweet to “as many wins as” before everybody laughed it off. I mostly bring this up because, if memory serves, Wisconsin has only won in West Lafayette 17 times ever, or something close to that. It’s pretty amazing.
When Purdue’s athletes are connecting to supplement the Hammons/Simpson combo, they are as good a team as anybody. Kendall Stephens was hitting, so that was a huge help. If he can turn out to be as deadly a shooter as Ryne Smith developed into, Purdue is going to be awfully tough. Even if Hammons jumps to the NBA, which is very likely, Simpson can manage the post well enough to give the Boilers a very nice inside-outside threat. And with ballhandlers like Ronnie Johnson and Bryson Scott,* they have the slashers who will open up shots for either, if they don’t score themselves. As I’ve written before, the pieces are all there. You saw that last night, you saw it for most of the game against Ohio St., you saw it towards the end against Minnesota. It’s just getting them to work as they should consistently, which is going to be a struggle for a team as young as Purdue. This is the sort of team who is just as likely to beat a top five team as they are to drop a game to relatively unknown school. Frustrating as hell to watch, but it works, there is a satisfaction that just can’t be matched.
*One gripe with the announcers last night, who I thought did fine otherwise: they were really wringing their hands when Ronnie picked up a couple of fairly quick fouls last night and kept harping about how Purdue now had to rely on a freshman in Bryson Scott. To that, I could only roll my eyes. Yes, Scott is a freshman, but he was nearly Mr. Basketball in Indiana, which is a feat. And, honestly, after a little bit of a bumpy start to the year, I might trust Scott with the ball more than I do Ronnie. Both the Johnsons are great athletes who can make plays most others in the conference can’t. But they are too reliant on that and tend to get themselves into bad positions when they needlessly push the ball. I hate to call for a little restraint, because their recklessness is a big weapon at times. But it’s frustrating during games when it just isn’t working.
Purdue gets to come home this weekend in what would appear to be a bit of a breather game against Penn St. before heading off to Northwestern. Northwestern is always a tricky place to play. It’s an odd arena to play in, and Northwestern typically plays a much different style than any other conference team. They picked off Illinois last Sunday and made Michigan St. work for it last night, much more than the score would suggest. That game is one that always makes me nervous. But I think it will be telling. Both of those games could certainly be considered trap games, especially for a team this young. They’ll get to welcome Wisconsin into Mackey after that, and you know Purdue is going to want to put that in the W column after Indiana pulled out their game in Bloomington.*
*I’m certainly not one to defend the Hoosiers, but I actually didn’t have a problem with the fans rushing the court after that one. Wisconsin was ranked third, IU was (and is) unranked. IU lost most everybody they counted on last year, you certainly can’t consider it the same team. Is Wisconsin as good as Indiana on a historic level? No, of course not. But rushing the floor isn’t always, or even typically, about history. At that moment, it made sense to me. Would I have thought it weird if the rush didn’t happen? No, not at all. But I do think it was pretty similar to a game during at Mackey during the Hummel-Johnson-Moore freshman season when Purdue upset Wisconsin, giving the feel of “Yes, this team is for real” and the students stormed the court. Kristine was at that game, as she was a student at the time. I tried to get into that game, but it was sold out to the point I couldn’t even get a ticket from a scalper. I certainly tried to. So I was stuck watching that one back at Kristine apartment.
Is this a tournament team? Probably not this year. I could certainly see NIT. But would I be shocked if Purdue snuck it’s way into the tournament? No, not really. It’s going to take a very strong Big Ten showing, which is certainly not a given. But it’s not impossible. It’s just going to take a lot more games like what we saw last night to make it happen.