Purdue avoids previous demons, readies for an NCAA Tournament run
Purdue may — or may not — make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
But what the Boilermakers know now is they won’t face an NCAA Tournament fate that’s been way too familiar; Purdue survived the first round of the Big Dance, perhaps nuking the demons of years past, like when the Boilermakers lost to double-digit seed Little Rock in 2016 or to North Texas last season.
Friday afternoon in Milwaukee, No. 3 seed Purdue dominated No. 14-seed Yale 78-56, showing that the Boilermakers might in fact be built for a tournament run.
It’s cliché, but games do occur one at a time, and Purdue has moved on to the second round of the tournament, where it will play either 6 seed Texas or 11 seed Virginia Tech. And the Boilermakers might have a bit of luck on their side — something that’s been elusive in March and April over the last … forever — finding that the path to a chance at a Final Four is clearer than anticipated, with No. 2 seed Kentucky falling to 15 St. Peter’s on St. Patrick’s Day Thursday afternoon.
If Purdue’s biggest obstacle to a Final Four run, which would be its first since 1980, is itself, then the Boilermakers get a passing grade in the victory over Yale. Purdue came into the postseason will big questions about its viability as an NCAA Tournament favorite: Could the Boilermakers avoid strings of turnovers that nuked them in losses in the last few weeks of the season? Would Purdue hit its free throws? Would Jaden Ivey rise to the occasion, not only getting his own but involving his teammates? Would Zach Edey and Trevion Williams prove to a be a 1-2 combination that would be difficult for opponents to match up against in the paint? Would Purdue dedicate itself to defense?
It’s only a game, and against a 14 seed, but the answers came back overwhelmingly positive.
Ivey was a ringleader scoring 22 points, with a trio of 3-pointers, while getting his teammates involved more than his 1 assist indicates. The sophomore All-American looked like a player who loves the show, displaying his full arsenal of offensive weaponry, with acrobatic drives to the hoop offset with long 3-pointers. He attracted the defense in the lane, which left others, like Edey, who had 16, free for looks at the basket. Ivey was fouled frequently, as was Purdue, because the Boilermakers are a matchup nightmare for those outside the Big Ten, who haven’t spent extended hours prepping.
The Boilermakers went to the line 33 times vs. Yale, and hit 27, far above their season average of around 72%. Purdue committed 12 turnovers, but most importantly, it avoided the long stretches of giveaways that had plagued the Boilermakers in regular-season loses at the end of the season and in the Big Ten title game defeat to Iowa.
Now, the Boilermakers can settle into the tournament, having answered Game 1 questions and having trapped its previous ghosts.
Purdue seemed to struggle with being a frontrunner this season. When it briefly ascended to No. 1 in the late fall, Purdue suffered in the following week, losing on a half-court heave to Rutgers then having to go to overtime to beat a mediocre NC State team on a neutral court. A favorite to win the Big Ten, the Boilermakers not only couldn’t win a regular-season title, losing that chance when they lost 2 of 3 down the stretch, but fell short in the title game to (then-hot) Iowa.
It left many, including Purdue’s fans, as dismissive of the chance of a Boilermaker NCAA run. Maybe a chip is what the Boilermakers needed again, an edge that forced them into an extra gear. If so, then good. Purdue seems to have found it, if only for a game.
But a game can show a lot. In beating Yale, Purdue knocked off a first-round opponent by its biggest margin since St. Peter’s — Go Peacocks! — in 2011. Maybe the Boilermakers have something brewing here after all.