As Purdue’s 23-point second-half lead against Illinois wasted away to nothing on Sunday afternoon, there was no need to check a calendar.

This is March, and this is Purdue basketball.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Boilermaker indignity.

After the Illini tied the game with 1:17 left, Purdue did not continue to fold. As it had in the first half, Purdue reverted to the team that spent a good deal of this season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Boilers finished the game on a 9-4 kick in the final minute.

And it wasn’t just a Zach Edey show — 4 different Boilers scored. A true team win to pull out a 76-71 victory.

Not that Purdue didn’t briefly attempt to hand it back.

A silly reach-in stopped the clock for Illinois with 16 seconds left when that was the only realistic means of eradicating a 6-point deficit. And after Coleman Hawkins missed both free throws from that gift, the Illini got new life when RJ Melendez grabbed the rebound and was put on the line himself.

But Melendez only split the pair, and with that Illinois was pretty much sunk.

Perhaps this game told us more about Illinois than Purdue. The Illini are the Big Ten’s most bipolar team, capable of looking like both the league’s best team and its worst team within the same game.

Illinois rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Northwestern, then followed that with a loss to Ohio State. The Illini blew a late 7-point lead against Michigan to send the game to overtime, then rallied from a 7-point deficit to force a second overtime and win the game.

All outcomes are on the table with Illinois, so reading into what it means about the opponent is perhaps fruitless.

That said, the nailbiter continued a clear pattern for Purdue in recent weeks. The Boilers do not look like an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed.

But will that still be true in a week? And more importantly, how much will it matter?

The fight for No. 1 intensifies

With 4 losses in its past 8 games, Purdue’s previously steel grip on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament has loosened. Much has changed since beating the Boilermakers was a feat worthy of 3 court-stormings in 12 days.

Other teams in the No. 1-seed range — namely Houston, Alabama and Kansas — have strengthened their positions. And with 10 straight wins, including 1 over Arizona, UCLA has surpassed Purdue’s resume in quality.

Even Texas, which closed out the regular season with a win against Kansas, is likely the next in line when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. The Longhorns have 11 Quad 1 wins to Purdue’s 9.

But much can change in the next week. And Purdue does hold the No. 1 seed in the event that determines its immediate destiny — the Big Ten Tournament.

Win that, and the Boilermakers bring themselves back in the discussion for a top seed. But it may still require outside help.

It will be tough to jump UCLA unless the Bruins lose in the Pac-12 Tournament. Frankly, the same is true for Alabama and Houston in the SEC Tournament and AAC Tournament, respectively.

The Big 12 Tournament is most likely to be Purdue’s best friend, as it will be a gauntlet for Kansas to get through. But given the NET rankings in that league, it’s plausible that Texas or Baylor would sneak ahead of Purdue for the final No. 1 seed if either wins the Big 12.

But how much does nabbing a top seed actually matter in the NCAA Tournament?

History shows it’s more important than you’d think.

No. 1 seeds are built to win

Looking at last year’s Final Four in particular, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between earning the No. 1 and 2 seeds.

A pair of No. 2 seeds — Duke and Villanova — made it to New Orleans. So did a No. 8 seed in North Carolina. Kansas was the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four — but the Jayhawks won it all.

And that’s how it usually goes.

No. 1 seeds are twice as likely to reach the Final Four as No. 2 seeds (59 trips to 30). They are 3 times as likely to reach the championship game (37 to 12). And No. 1 seeds are almost 5 times more likely to win the national title as a No. 2 seed (24 to 5).

It matters.

But more than anything, it’s a tournament of matchups. And that’s true even for top seeds.

A year ago, Baylor probably would have been happier as a 2-seed than drawing North Carolina in the second round. In 2021, Illinois got hosed by drawing a vastly underseeded in-state opponent in Loyola in the second round. Unbeaten Wichita State got a horrendous draw with No. 8 seed Kentucky in 2014.

Sometimes, though not often, life is better as a No. 2 or 3 seed.

But numbers aren’t what Purdue needs to focus on this week and beyond. During the recent mini-slump, the Boilermakers have struggled with an alternating set of 3 repeating issues — turnovers, 3-point shooting and interior defense.

The Northwestern loss is the only 1 in which all of those elements were off in the same game, but each has crept up more than once lately. And much of that can be linked to inexperienced guard play.

Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer are a remarkable anomaly in Purdue history. The duo just became the first freshmen to start every regular-season game for the Boilers since 1981 — a jaw-dropping stat.

But there is a veteran in the mix who can settle things down, even if he’s been silent much of this season.

In the season finale, junior Brandon Newman revealed himself as a potential key to Purdue’s train running longer than usual this March.

Newman was the player of the game against Illinois with a season-high 19 points, including a pair of free throws with 5 seconds left to officially put the game out of reach. It was a flashback to a freshman season where he twice went over 20 points and made the second-most 3s among Big Ten freshmen.

If Newman can continue outperforming his season average of 6.1 points per game, even if not quite so drastically, Purdue’s seed will just be a number.