March Madness: With B1G tourney title shot today, Purdue gets chance at redemption
It wasn’t long ago — only a week — that Purdue was feeling sour.
The Boilermakers, once the country’s No. 1 ranked team, had let an opportunity to win an outright Big Ten Championship, which would have been their league-best 25th title, slip right through their grasp. It was the worst of their too many turnovers down the stretch of the Big Ten regular-season. Purdue had controlled the Big Ten race with 3 games to go, needing 3 wins for an outright title. And 2 victories likely would have given them a share. But rather than win anything, the Boilermakers lost twice, then had to eek out a home victory against Indiana to save themselves from a complete meltdown.
But still, it was a dud.
Not only did Purdue lose out on a championship, but one was left to wonder about where the Boilermakers stood on the eve of the postseason. They seemed broken, the defense still inconsistent and the offense, once a highly-efficient masterpiece, was now looking at times like a kindergartener’s scribbles. At a time when a team wants to be peaking, it wasn’t, and instead Purdue seemed to be searching for answers.
It’s found them in Indianapolis. And now, as Purdue preps for a third game this season with Iowa in the Big Ten Championship game at 3:30 p.m. ET, the Boilermakers get a chance at redemption.
During the past 2 days, with wins of Penn State and then Michigan State, Purdue has looked closer to what was expected when the Big Ten season began, when the Boilermakers had become the league favorite after Michigan had faltered during the non-conference. But the following 2 months didn’t play out as planned, mainly because Purdue couldn’t close out games the way it had wanted to. Instead, the Boilermakers lost 6 games — finishing a game behind league-winners Illinois and Wisconsin — with 5 of those coming by single-digits. And more maddeningly, Purdue lost 4 games on near-last-second shots, one of them a half-court heave by senior Ron Harper Jr. and another on a banked-in prayer by Badger freshman Chucky Hepburn.
But Purdue was undone during the regular-season by more than bad luck. The Boilermakers were incapable at times of putting opponents away, instead suffering a series of turnovers that shrunk leads and not hitting free throws well enough, only 62-percent in their losses, to hold on late. Instead, Rutgers, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State were all given chances to win late, and did so by throwing in buzzer-beaters.
Beating Iowa today for a third time this season won’t be an easy task. The Hawkeyes are playing as well, if not better, than anyone in the Big Ten, having won 9 of their past 10, with the only loss being by 2 points at Illinois on the final day of the regular season. And Purdue’s 2 wins over Iowa come with an asterisk and a note: Purdue beat the Hawkeyes in Mackey Arena in December when star Keegan Murray was out with an injury, and on the return trip to Iowa Murray was limited due to foul trouble.
Yet Purdue seems to have found some of its early-season mojo. Sophomore star Jaden Ivey has taken on greater responsibility as a ring-leader to the Boilermakers’ offense, rather than only as a scorer. Trevion Williams had a gigantic late-game surge against Michigan State in the semifinals win, and trice set up fellow senior Eric Hunter Jr. for huge shots that kept the Spartans at arms’ length. Even Brandon Newman, who hadn’t scored since January after falling out of the rotation, returned to spark the Boilermakers in Friday’s late-night win over the Nittany Lions.
Purdue’s not been perfect, but it’s been closer, and is looking more like a team that many picked as a Final Four contender than the squad that was scuffling down the stretch.
Many times it’s thought that a good conference tournament run isn’t a harbinger for NCAA tourney success, and that’s probably true. But for the Boilermakers, this week in Indianapolis has represented a chance to put the regular-season disappointment well behind them. A win today would not only give Purdue Title No. 25, but also solidify it as a title contender once again.