As the final seconds of a mid-December game diminished as if each one became its own day, I witnessed one of the greatest games in my recent memory. Michigan State, a team led by surefire Hall-of-Famer Tom Izzo and almost unanimously considered one of the best teams in the country during the preseason, had just fallen to the Purdue Boilermakers.
Standing in the southwestern part of Mackey Arena with my shirt above my head and my throat turning red, I began to realize that this team had something going for them.
To most it was a typical upset. It has become almost unorthodox to go through a week of college hoops without seeing a mid-major upset or a Western Kentucky make the Sweet 16.
To those who follow college basketball closely, it was a statement to everyone in the country: Purdue's Baby Boilermakers were good.
After a season in which Purdue at times could look as good as the Detroit Pistons and as poor as an elementary school pick-up game, it's hard to believe that the Purdue men's basketball team is nothing short of special.
Why? Because what they have learned and accomplished this past season has been just that—special.
As Matt Painter began his 2007-2008 season, he had already done a good part of his homework. Bringing in one of the top college recruit classes of the 2008 season was enough to make the team worthwhile to watch. A group of stud prospects such as E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel became part of a formidable group of youngsters who were, for lack of another word, naive.
But for every word you could think of to put down this team for its youth, you could find twice as many for its chemistry. Four freshmen in the starting lineup with Chris Kramer, a sophomore? I thought the idea at first was disturbing, considering the tenures of most freshmen in college basketball these days.
Nonetheless, I kept a close eye on the team and attended every game possible.
After a heartbreaking loss to Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Tournament, I figured the team would come out of Big Ten play with a mediocre standing, in flux with half of the teams in the conference looking for an at-large bid.
But then they started to get good. Really good. A win against Louisville (No. 18 at the time) and a loss at Michigan State, in which the team led with five minutes to go, threw every thought about a learning curve out the door.
Then the seemingly impossible happened. Purdue began an 11-game winning streak in conference, including two wins against Wisconsin, to leapfrog all the way to the top of the Big Ten. Even after losses at Indiana and Ohio State, a team full of freshmen walked away with the second best record in the Big Ten at 15-3.
After a dramatic loss to Xavier as a six seed in the NCAA Tournament, you felt that with this team, anything was possible in the future.
"So what, Purdue led a good run that ended short in the second round. They couldn't beat teams when it counted, and the fact is they'll never beat the UNCs and Memphises of the country." I've got something even better for you to chew on—this winter Purdue will beat Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Tournament.
If the 2007-2008 season told us anything, it's that the Purdue Boilermakers already learned how to walk. In fact, they can run with anyone else in the nation, let alone the conference.
For a team that began taking their baby steps when they were losing to Iowa State, they were working a slight jog while making Wisconsin look like it had no business being near them. Not only do they have big time scorers at nearly every position, they have the defense to force shot clock violations and teamwork that made Indiana cringe before Eric Gordon let loose.
At first glance you have to look at E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel, and Keaton Grant. I would too—they were the best players on the team last season. But then you look into the latter part of the roster, and the icing on the cake begins to add on.
Chris Kramer, a 6.8 ppg player, was a first team Big Ten player not because of his offense, but because he made guards like Drew Neitzel look nothing like the All-American player he was voted as. Scott Martin, who was sidelined with injuries for a fraction of the season, at times looked better than Hummel.
Nemanja Calasan looked like a quicker version of Dirk Nowitzki and proved he could shoot from behind the line just as well as him. JaJuan Johnson? If you haven't seen this guy play, I would keep an eye on him. Think Tyrus Thomas on steroids with a better low post game.
That said, the biggest reason I think Purdue will go much farther this season is not their talent—it's their chemistry. For all of these young men, half of whom are my age or younger, to put four to five months of their time to work together as a single unit and progress as a team—that's invaluable.
For a team full of freshmen and sophomores to compete as much as they have on such short notice is incredible in itself. To think that they will be together for three more seasons is more absurd than it is realistic.
By no means am I going to say that the Purdue Boilermakers are going to win the national title. However, you have to believe that Matt Painter and his Boilermakers are going to run through the Big Ten this winter with the same momentum that they had going into the NCAA Tournament against Baylor and Xavier.
For so many guys to play at such a high level for an entire season, and to think that they have barely tapped into their potential, is ridiculous. A group of freshmen finished with a 25-9 record in what can be considered the first of four seasons—I can't wait to see what they do this upcoming season.
Baby steps? I'm thinking marathons for this team.
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