Hickey: Purdue's warts are better exposed now than in (yet another) March
If this is as bad as it gets for Purdue this season, then so be it.
Losing to Indiana comes with no joy. Especially not when Hoosier fans can crow about being 1-0 all-time against No. 1 Purdue.
But come Monday, Purdue should still be No. 1 Purdue.
It won’t be unanimous like it was a week ago, but there’s no reason Houston or Alabama should siphon off enough votes to supplant the Boilermakers atop the polls. Losing a road game by 5 points to the team that hates you the most and happens to be ranked 21st nationally isn’t such a bad thing.
It may even be a good thing.
From Matt Painter’s perspective, a loss in Bloomington could in fact be the very best thing.
A loss to the Hoosiers is the annoying type of defeat that you can’t dismiss. It lingers. And having that happen removes any veneer of invincibility that may have been building around the Boilermakers.
Purdue received a reminder that given the right conditions, it is, in fact, stoppable. These are the types of reminders best served in February rather than when the Boilers usually receive them — in late March.
Still plenty of time for freshman growth
Painter was determined to add a veteran point guard in the transfer portal this summer, taking a swing at Kansas State’s Nijel Pack and Iowa State’s Tyrese Hunter.
NIL became a talking point when Pack chose to transfer to Miami ahead of Purdue. It wasn’t too long thereafter, in fact, that outgoing Purdue president Mitch Daniels wrote a Washington Post op-ed decrying the arrival of pay-for-play in college athletics. It didn’t feel coincidental.
The Boilermakers also missed out on Hunter, who stayed in the Big 12 and went to Texas.
Painter didn’t recruit over incoming freshman Braden Smith because he didn’t believe in him. He did it because sometimes freshmen can only grow the hard way. It’s usually preferable they can learn through those growth spurts from the bench.
The Boilers don’t have that luxury.
Painter found a helpful bench player in the portal in David Jenkins, but all of Smith’s growth has to take place on the court. Because when he is on the bench, fellow freshman Fletcher Loyer is handling the point. Purdue’s season would go as far as its freshmen backcourt could carry it.
And along with center Zach Edey, those freshmen helped carry the Boilermakers all the way to 22-1. That’s more than anyone could have asked for. Fortunately for Purdue, both have mostly avoided hitting any kind of freshman wall.
That changed for Smith on Saturday.
Indiana’s defense finally made him look like a freshman. He didn’t make a field goal until 2:02 remained in the game, finishing 1 of 8 from the field. Usually a sure thing at the free-throw line — he was 3rd in the Big Ten in free-throw shooting before Saturday — Smith went 2 for 4.
And it’s not as if Smith didn’t make himself useful in other ways. He had 6 assists and 3 steals. Yes, he committed a bad turnover in the final minute when he errantly threw a pass out of bounds. But it was his lone turnover against a defense that was keyed in all game.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Purdue. But a freshman point guard committing 1 turnover on the road against your biggest rival? You’re usually going to take that whenever you can get it.
Purdue fans are remiss to give Indiana credit for anything, and that’s unlikely to change. But Assembly Hall provided Purdue’s young backcourt with an atmosphere unlike any it will encounter before the NCAA Tournament. And even that atmosphere won’t match the buzzsaw the Boilers wandered into on Saturday.
Assembly Hall was a living, breathing entity not unlike the house in The Amityville Horror. Purdue Pete wasn’t getting out alive. But come March, playing in that atmosphere may be quite useful for young players like Smith and Loyer to draw on.
And March is really what matters here, especially to Purdue.
Becoming just the 7th Big Ten champion since 1975 to finish the season with 1 conference loss would have been neat. But it’s nothing more than a footnote. You still get the same banner for winning the Big Ten as every other champion.
This Purdue team is built to finally scratch a 43-year itch and reach the Final 4.
For that to happen, its talented freshmen needed to experience adversity before March. They got a brief taste against Rutgers back in early January, but that had perhaps faded from memory during a 9-game winning streak.
Losses to Indiana don’t fade.
Come March, that may be something to be thankful for.