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Purdue enters NCAA tournament with something to prove

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College basketball fans look forward to upsets this time of year. The drama, the unexpected, the Cinderella story – all are hallmarks of March Madness, making the NCAA Tournament three of the most exhilarating weeks of the year in sports. 

But there are upsets, and then there are historic upsets.

For Purdue, last year’s first-round loss to Fairleigh Dickinson fell into the latter category – a No. 1 seed falling to a 16, just the second time it’s happened in the history of the men’s tournament, following UMBC’s win over Virginia in 2018.

The Boilermakers rolled through the regular season, winning 22 of their first 23 games and weathering a February lull to win the Big Ten postseason title, only to have it come crashing down on college basketball’s biggest stage.

It was a giant loss for the program, and for Toronto’s Zach Edey, whose National Player of the Year season went to waste.

“I didn’t really speak to anyone that night, didn’t really speak to anyone the next day,” Edey said back in December, recalling the feeling after that loss. “It took me a little bit to accept that it happened.”

It wasn’t the first time a promising season had gone up in flames. In 2021, Purdue earned a fourth seed at the tournament, then lost in the first round to North Texas. A year later, the Boilermakers raced to the Sweet 16, only to lose to Saint Peter’s, which became the first No. 15 seed in history to reach the Elite Eight.

This year, the Boilermakers are reloaded. Thirty wins, a Big Ten regular-season title, and once again, a top seed at the dance.

They’re motivated, and ready to prove last March was an aberration.

“[Losing last year] gives you a bigger chip on your shoulder,” said sophomore Fletcher Loyer. “There’s more you want to prove…That bad taste in our mouth has stuck with us all year.

“We’re ready to go for March, and ready to prove what everybody said was wrong.”

***

Purdue’s redemption tour begins in Indianapolis on Friday against Grambling State, which already got its feet wet on Wednesday, battling back from a 14-point second-half deficit to beat Montana State in the First Four.

But for a program with something to prove, Purdue didn’t exactly do itself any favours last weekend. 

After sneaking past Michigan State in the Big Ten quarter-finals on Friday, the Boilermakers fell to Wisconsin in the semis a day later, allowing a Chucky Hepburn layup at the buzzer to force overtime and a Max Klesmit floater in the dying seconds of the extra period. 

A 76-75 loss, followed by those familiar whispers of impending doom.

Never mind that Houston, top-ranked in the nation entering the postseason, was thumped in the Big 12 championship game by Iowa State, or that North Carolina, another top seed in the NCAA Tournament, succumbed to NC State in the ACC final. Or that Arizona, which won the Pac-12, or Tennessee and Kentucky – the top two teams in the SEC – both withered in their conference tournaments.

It’s not necessarily fair, but it’s a reality: Losses are measured differently this time of year for Purdue. 

On the inside, there’s an air of confidence, beginning at the top with the 7-foot-4 Edey – already crowned by Sporting News as college basketball’s best player and a near lock for each of the other five Player of the Year awards (Naismith, Associated Press, Wooden, Oscar Robertson and NABC). If he sweeps, he’ll join a select group of players that earned back-to-back consensus honours, and become the first since 1983.

Oh, and that group? It includes five players: Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Ralph Sampson – all Hall of Famers.

Edey, already a consensus first team All-American for the second straight year, is averaging 24.4 points (first in the nation) and 11.7 rebounds (third) this season. Purdue has been amongst the steadiest teams in college basketball, slipping to fourth in the AP Poll for one week at the beginning of December, but never lower. And unlike last year, when a stretch of four losses in six games over a three-week span in February had them looking vulnerable come tournament time, the Boilermakers are looking resilient.

Purdue followed each of its four losses this regular season with a stretch of six or more wins.

“I think that’s been a big area of growth for us, this year compared to last year,” Edey said. “I think last year a loss would rattle us, shake our confidence. This year, we all know who we are. We know what kind of team we are, what we can do…this year [losing] doesn’t shake us at all.”

Also working in the Boilermakers’ favour this time around is a deeper, more balanced supporting cast, beginning with Braden Smith, a Big Ten All-Freshman last season who went from being a steady contributor to one of the most complete point guards in college basketball. They also added Lance Jones, a fifth-year graduate transfer from Southern Illinois, who’s started all 33 games for head coach Matt Painter.

Then there’s the real game-changer – the outside shooting. Purdue took what was its undoing a year ago and turned it into one of its biggest strengths.

Last March, Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Tobin Anderson implemented a game plan that his team executed to perfection. The Knights – the smallest team in the NCAA Tournament in terms of average height – employed a full-court press and swarmed Edey on the interior, forcing the Boilermakers to beat them from the outside. Edey finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, but Purdue shot just 5-of-26 (19.2 per cent) from deep and went over five minutes without a point down the stretch, losing 63-58.

This year, Purdue has improved its three-point shooting by over eight per cent (from 32.2 to 40.8), jumping from 277th to second best in the nation. Buoyed by senior forward Mason Gillis (48.1) and Loyer (43.6), it trailed just Kentucky, and is one of just three Division-I programs shooting over 40 per cent from beyond the arc.

“[This year] feels different because we have better shooters,” Painter said. “We made more shots. The ball goes in more…that’s what feels different about it.

“You have confidence. That’s the real separation for this team. We’re the second best three-point shooting team in the country, and that gives us such a balance with Zach.”

***

There’s a precedent for bouncing back from college basketball’s lowest of lows.

Virginia, the only other program to fall in the Round of 64 as a one versus 16, recovered in historic fashion, earning another top seed in 2019 and rallying – beating Purdue in the Elite Eight en route – for its first and only national championship.

So, there’s reason for optimism – not that Purdue claims to need it.

“We’ve embraced it for 12 months,” Painter said, dispelling any notion that the Boilermakers were wallowing in self-pity. “This isn’t something where you wait until the next bracket. You’ve got to earn your way in, but you also have to sit in it. Sometimes that’s the best medicine, is to be able to sit in that adversity.

“You can’t fix something if you don’t own it, and I think from a staff standpoint we own it, and our players own it.”

Purdue wasted no time moving forward, sweeping the Maui Invitational in November, beating Gonzaga, Tennessee and Marquette – all ranked at the time, and all top-five seeds this March. The Boilermakers padded their resume with a win over Arizona in December – then, ranked first in the nation – and cruised through their Big Ten slate, winning 17 of 20 games, including a pair against Illinois, which went on to beat Wisconsin in the conference title game on Sunday.

In all, an 8-0 record against ranked teams and 12 quadrant one wins, good for third in the nation behind fellow top seeds Houston and UConn.

Purdue won’t face any All-Americans on Friday against Grambling State, and they likely won’t come face-to-face with a single player who will set foot on an NBA court. The Tigers can copy Fairleigh Dickinson’s template all they want, but this year, the Boilermakers are ready and capable of beating teams in more ways than one.

Should Purdue advance, the road will get more and more challenging. Fellow Canadians Emanuel Miller of TCU and Andrew Nembhard of Gonzaga potentially await in the second round and the Sweet Sixteen, and Tennessee, led by Dalton Knecht – its own first team All-American – could stand in the way of a trip to the Final Four.

For the Boilermakers, avenging last year’s loss means more than just winning in the Round of 64. It means winning a national championship, like Virginia did.

They’re ready to take the first step towards that goal.

“When you face adversity, you look at it, you deal with (and) you keep working,” Painter said. “You don’t start as a No. 1 seed the next year. You’ve got to earn it, and our guys earned it.”