When it comes to cheering on your favorite team, it is difficult not to get excited about coming away with a win over a quality opponent. Beyond that short term joy, however, some things occurred over the course of the Purdue-Tennessee game (a 73-72 Boilermaker win) and throughout the 2009 Paradise Jam tournament that should benefit Purdue over the course of the the season.
Picking Up a Quality Win For NCAA Seeding
Purdue's seed last year (No. 5 and shipped out west) likely had as much to do with their performance in key out-of-conference games (a close loss to Oklahoma in the championship of the Preseason NIT and a blowout loss to Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge) as it did with their pedestrian Big Ten record (11-7, but somewhat forgiveable due to the lingering back issue for Robbie Hummel). By winning the first of what will likely be three (Wake Forest and West Virginia) quality non-conference games, this team took a huge step toward getting that coveted top-three seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Emergence of E'Twaun Moore
Purdue fans have been teased by Moore's impressive offensive repertoire since early in his freshman campaign. Their frustration stemmed from the infrequency that Moore showed the breadth of those skills. It's not that Moore didn't have great freshman and sophomore seasons. With the media attention that JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel receive, very few people (outside of Purdue fans) know that Moore led the Boilermakers in scoring in each of his first two seasons.
Purdue fans just felt he could do so much more. While averaging over 18 points in the tournament and scoring 22 points (in a variety of ways) in the championship game, Moore seems to have finally embraced the role of go-to scorer for the Boilermakers.
The Health of Robbie Hummel
There have been numerous comments from the Purdue family and Hummel himself that his back was fine and would be a non-factor this season. Still, most Purdue fans remained apprehensive regarding the situation. By playing three games in four days, including a team high 37 minutes in the championship against a very rugged Tennessee team, Hummel did more than enough to allay those concerns. Could his back pain rear its ugly head again? Absolutely. But it is considerably less likely after the weekend.
The Evolution of JaJuan Johnson
While Purdue fans are cautiously optimistic that the 2009-10 Boilermakers can make a run at a national title, the reality is the 2010-11 season is the more likely candidate, provided their big three (Moore, Hummel, and Johnson) return for their senior years. The person amongst those three most frequently mentioned as a possible NBA early entry is Johnson. While Johnson has improved, as evidenced by his double-doubles in each of the first two tourney games, his rail-thin frame and his performance against Tennessee senior center Wayne Chism showed that Johnson still has some work to do before being ready for the NBA.
The Indoctrination of the Freshman and Previously Seldom-Used Players
Before the season began, there were many who felt Purdue had as good a starting six (the current starters plus last year's starting point guard Lewis Jackson) as any team in the country. The big question was whether they would get sufficient contributions beyond those six to be able to play their relentless defense and take the next step on the national stage.
The urgency to have that question answered increased dramatically when Sandi Marcius (projected to be the first big man off the bench) and the aforementioned Jackson were both lost with foot injuries. Marcius is expected back in December, but Jackson may be lost for the season.
As such, reserves Kelsey Barlow, Ryne Smith, Mark Wohlford, Patrick Bade and D.J. Byrd were pressed into critical roles throughout the tournament. Not surprisingly, their performances were uneven. Some were outstanding (sharpshooter Smith's 16 points against St. Joseph, Barlow's passing prowess through the weekend) and some were not (Bade's 11 fouls in 27 tournament minutes). More importantly, however, they each gained valuable experience in a tournament setting against high quality competition. That experience will serve them well as they endure the Big Ten season and NCAA tournament.
Coach Matt Painter has steadily built the Boilermaker program toward elite status. The 2009 Paradise Jam title is another step toward that stature. But more importantly, these Boilermakers showed they have the pieces in places to make the short drive down I-65 to Indianapolis in March.