With a 79-60 victory over Minnesota at Mackey Arena on Tuesday night, the fourth-ranked Purdue Boilermakers equaled the best start in school history at 14-0. As has been well-documented, the 1993-94 team that recorded the other 14-0 start was spearheaded by National Player of the Year and future NBA No. 1 draft pick Glenn Robinson.
Comparing that team to this one provides an interesting look at contrasting styles of basketball. Whether you favor the high-scoring unit of '93-'94 or the gritty, in-your-shirt defensive stoppers this season, both teams had a singular factor that made them dangerous in their own right.
The '93-'94 team came into the season ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press, as most of Robinson's supporting cast were rather unknown quantities. Swingman Cuonzo Martin had averaged around 12 points per game as a sophomore, but had never made a three-point basket in two seasons.
Guard Matt Waddell had averaged just under seven points per game the previous season, making him a possible third option, but questions remained about the other two starters. Point guard Porter Roberts had struggled to maintain a positive assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman. Center Brandon Brantley was coming off a medical redshirt, and hadn't looked terribly impressive during his freshman season in '91-'92.
This season, the Boilers started out at No. 7 in the AP poll, with a nucleus lacking in flashy NBA-ready talent, but quite long on experience, with two NCAA Tournament appearances already to their credit.
Strength of Schedule
Going into the '93-'94 season, Purdue's schedule looked like a typical power conference team's slate, with a collection of possible mid-major contenders, and one other big-conference foe, in this case a Seton Hall team that had gone 26-6 before falling in the NCAA Tournament's second round.
Their trip to the Great Alaska Shootout was supposed to give them another quality opponent, with Wake Forest (and a then-unknown freshman named Tim Duncan) lurking on the opposite side of the bracket. However, the host Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves pulled a monumental upset, leaving the Boilers with walkover wins against Weber State and Portland.
The Boilers themselves were nearly toppled in that tourney, escaping with a 74-69 win over a Wisconsin-Green Bay squad that went on to thrash NC State by 31 that season and knock off Cal in a first-round NCAA Tournament game.
The names didn't read like a who's who of college basketball, with luminaries such as Houston, Georgia Southern, and San Francisco dotting the Boilers' early schedule. However, of Purdue's first 13 opponents (thanks to the Alaska trip, the Boilers got to play Weber State twice), only three ended the season with losing records.
Just as many went to the NCAA Tournament. In addition to the aforementioned UW-Green Bay, James Madison (a 98-74 victim in the Boilermaker Invitational) also reached the tournament, losing by only two to eventual Final Four participant Florida. UT-Chattanooga lost by eight against Purdue, then, in March, suffered a 102-73 waxing at the hands of Kansas, who incidentally saw their season ended by Purdue two rounds later.
This season's Boiler squad has one advantage in the comparison to the Big Dog's crew. In '93-'94, the Boilers never had to play a Top 25 team on their run to 14-0. In fact, their first meeting with a ranked opponent was their first loss, a 75-69 defeat at 12th-ranked Wisconsin.
This season, Purdue has already tangled with two teams ranked in the Top 10, surviving a thriller against Tennessee in the Paradise Jam, then throttling West Virginia on New Year's Day. It's only fitting that Purdue seeks 15-0 this Saturday in a trip to...17th-ranked Wisconsin.
Playing With the Big Boys
One reason Purdue is rarely mentioned as one of the 20 winningest programs in college basketball (which they currently are) is their frequent problems against top-level opposition.
Even during Gene Keady's legendary tenure in West Lafayette, the Boilers struggled to a 71-109 record against ranked opponents. Under Matt Painter, it's not been much better, going 11-22 coming into this season.
The Boilers' last winning season against ranked opposition? 1999-2000, where a Brian Cardinal-led Boilermaker team went 5-4 against Top 25 opponents en route to an Elite Eight loss to...you guessed it, Wisconsin.
The '93-'94 squad managed to go 6-4 overall against ranked teams, starting with that first loss to the pesky Badgers.
This year's team may not have to face a lot of Top-25 opposition in a struggling Big Ten. Only Wisconsin and Michigan State are currently ranked, although the potential may exist for Minnesota or Illinois to creep back into the polls by the time of their second meeting with Purdue.
The '93-'94 Boilers could score, as one might expect from a team featuring the National Player of the Year.
Robinson raised his scoring average from 24.1 to 30.3, easily leading the Big Ten in both categories. That Robinson could get his was hardly a surprise.
What was highly surprising was the emergence of Cuonzo Martin, who went from two decent seasons with no three-point baskets to a 16.3-point per game season with 88 three-pointers.
During the 14-0 start, the Boilers averaged 89.2 points per game, and they would finish the Big Ten season as the conference's highest-scoring team. The first 14 wins were by an impressive margin of 17.1 points per game.
However, this season's defensive-minded team can trump that. Purdue has won this season's first 14 by an average margin of 18.5 points per game, allowing only 59.8 points per game so far. Only one opponent has been allowed to score more than 65 points in any game, that being Tennessee with 72. By contrast, the run-and-gun '93-'94 team only held two of their first 14 victims to less than 65.
Even with Martin's performances, the '93-'94 Boilermakers were still considered to be Glenn Robinson And A Bunch Of Other Guys. This year's Boilers have three juniors who can carry the load any given night in E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, and Robbie Hummel. Game-planning for three capable all-around players can prove, for most coaches, to be even more difficult than planning for a single unstoppable force like Robinson.
Whether you would rather marvel at a singular individual talent like Glenn Robinson or enjoy a supreme team effort like we're seeing this season, it remains a fact that starting a season 14-0 is tremendously difficult. It's hard for any team to keep such a focus for two months, regardless of their opposition.
The fact that this team is doing it again should make any basketball fan stand up and take notice.
For more from Scott Henry, including the new exclusive "To Gil, From Tiger," check out Starr*Rated .