No one expected the Purdue Boilermakers to be in this position. Absolutely no one.
Think about it: a team with no Robbie Hummel, no frontcourt size, and no consistent offense is one magical weekend away from a home state Final Four? Where's the punch line?
And while the odds appear stacked against Matt Painter's underdog team in Friday's regional semifinal matchup with top seeded Duke, the Boilermakers seem to like it that way.
In fact, as the second half of the 2009-10 season has rolled on, Purdue has come up with so many improbable nail-biter wins that the Cardiac Kids...err....Boilers are closing in on "team of destiny" status (while fans' pulse rates may never be the same again).
Which begs the question: does a string of "how did they pull that off?" victories mean the Old Gold and Black are simply lucky? Or are the frantic finishes and dramatic moments that have marked the 09-10 campaign a clue that this magical season is destined to end up at the Final Four (the goal that has so long eluded an otherwise proud Purdue program)?
The answer will play out over the next day or three. But in the meantime, with an Elite Eight berth on the line in Houston, here is a look back (in chronological order) at the eight most improbable Purdue victories of 2010.
With the Boilermakers mired in a three-game losing streak and a trip to one of the Big Ten's toughest road venues looming, Purdue needed a spark to knock off the Illini.
They found one at the end of the bench.
John Hart, a rarely used redshirt freshman that didn't even make it into the scorebook at Assembly Hall, poured in 14 points to propel the Boilers to a much needed win.
Understand, there are improbable victories...and then there are IMPROBABLE victories: you know, the kind where your best player on a given evening draws a technical foul while scoring his first hoop...because no one expected him to see the floor.
Also notable in this thriller from Champaign: The Boilermakers survived a furious Illini run in the final two minutes, including four consecutive three-pointers in a 71 second span that cut a seemingly safe 12-point lead to a single possession and made for a few very anxious moments.
Oh, but there were many more anxious moments to come in the next few months. Moving right along...
When Wisconsin visited Mackey Arena in late January, the Badgers came ready to play...and nearly got on the bus afterwards with an upset victory. Purdue not only survived Keaton Nankivil's career high 25 points (which should be illegal for a player averaging a mere eight points a game, if you ask me), but withstood a pair of Trevon Hughes jump shot attempts in the final 10 seconds, either of which would have been enough to give Wisconsin a one-point victory.
After the first Hughes attempt missed, the scramble for the loose ball ended with the Badgers being awarded an inbounds play and six seconds showing on the clock. For some reason, Wisconsin opted not to go with Nankivil on the final play ("Who cares about his 25 points anyway?") and Hughes missed again to give the Boilermakers a hard-fought win (after two JaJuan Johnson free throws provided the final three-point margin).
Watching an opponent somehow misfire on a very makeable shot in the waning seconds of the ballgame would become a common theme over the next few weeks, as you'll soon see...
One week later, the shooter was Verdell Jones III of Indiana.
The visiting Boilermakers, looking for their first win in Bloomington since 1999, overcame a four-point halftime deficit behind big performances from their "Big Three;" JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel each finished with 21 points, while E'Twaun Moore added 14. Despite the 56 points from Purdue's trio of stars, the back and forth struggle still came down to the final shot, as Jones had a game tying three-pointer at the buzzer bounce harmlessly off the rim.
"I thought it was going in," Jones told the Associated Press.
So did Purdue fans everywhere. Another close escape...
Jon Diebler leads the Ohio State Buckeyes in three-point shooting percentage.
Jon Diebler averages just over 13 points per game.
So with Purdue trying to pull out its first ever win at Value City Arena in Columbus, Diebler didn't seem like the player the Boilermakers should be leaving wide open in the game's final seconds.
The Buckeyes trailed by three points.
Diebler needed three points to reach his scoring average.
Purdue fans buried their heads in their hands as overtime loomed.
And somehow...Diebler missed as the buzzer sounded.
Boilers win. Pulse rate skyrockets.
While this particular Purdue-Minnesota game will always be remembered as the night Robbie Hummel tore his ACL, the Boilermakers regrouped after a devastating 18-0 Golden Gopher run to pull out a 59-58 miracle win in the waning seconds.
Defeating a quality opponent in a hostile environment despite a 10 minute scoring drought is nearly impossible, but the Boilers have gotten rather good at it in the past six weeks or so, and their first Hummel-less experience was no exception.
After a mostly forgettable second half for the visitors, Keaton Grant hit what turned out to be the game-winning jumper with seven seconds remaining, leaving Minnesota one final chance. Gophers guard Devoe Joseph used a killer pump fake to get off a wide open mid-range baseline jumper (the exact same move he had scored with earlier that night) as the horn sounded...but it missed.
Nope, still no idea how.
Damian Johnson tipped the miss back up and in, but the clock had expired and the Boilers were running...or in Hummel's case, limping...toward the exit.
Talk about winning by the slimmest of margins.
When Kirk Gibson hit his walk-off homer in the 1988 World Series, Vin Scully's immortal call went something like this: "In the year of the improbable, the impossible has happened!"
Those words have flashed through my mind quite a few times during the 2009-10 Purdue basketball season. The Big Ten title-clinching win at Penn State is a perfect example.
How else to explain E'Twaun Moore BANKING in a deep three-pointer from the top of the key to put the Boilermakers on top by six in an excruciatingly close game?
Everyone knows banks aren't open on Saturdays.
But it seemed fitting somehow for this particular group of Boilermakers to win a championship on that kind of shot.
Oh, and of course, after Moore's prayer was answered, Penn State STILL had a three-pointer in the final 10 seconds to tie. Seems like every opponent does.
This one was taken by Chris Babb. I'll leave you to guess whether or not it went in.
When the NCAA tournament rolled around, the Boilermakers were the trendy "first round upset pick deluxe" team. However, Purdue turned around a three-point halftime deficit against Siena and stormed out to a seemingly insurmountable 15-point lead late in the second half.
(Key word being "seemingly.")
When Siena put together its inevitable comeback, the Saints opted to foul Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson with a minute to go and the Boilers on top by three, instead of trying for a defensive stop.
Call it Hack-a-LewJack.
Jackson, whose shooting stroke will not be featured as a positive example anytime soon in an instructional DVD (sorry, that's the kindest description I can muster), nervously stepped to the line, eyed the rim, and clanked his first free throw attempt.
By clanking, I mean he shot it long, it bounced off the back rim, and then inexplicably dropped straight through the basket.
I'm done trying to figure this team out.
Jackson swished the second free throw, and the Saints never got closer.
Hey, E'Twaun, at least he didn't BANK his shot!
For their most recent escape, the Boilers decided to use overtime, a first for Matt Painter (who hadn't yet won an OT game in his time at the helm). Of course, overtime means the opposition (in this case, the Texas A&M Aggies) got two different opportunities to conclude Purdue's season.
In regulation, a late E'Twaun Moore turnover gave A&M's B.J. Holmes a potential game-winning shot right in front of his bench.
Holmes missed, of course.
In overtime, Purdue's Chris Kramer (who is associated with offense about as often as the Big Ten is recognized for "beautiful, high-scoring basketball"), put his team on top with four seconds left (after carrying them on his shoulders for most of the afternoon), thanks to a nifty crossover dribble and a driving layup.
That left just enough time for the Aggies, who raced the ball ahead and found Holmes in the exact same spot on the right wing: directly in front of a bench full of teammates who were all ready to storm the court in jubilation.
A flick of the wrist, and up went the basketball....
The difference between this game and most of the Boilers' near-escapes of 2010? Purdue was only up two, not three, as the opponent's final shot soared through the air.
If Holmes buried the triple, Purdue's season was over.
Destiny still awaits.