Pop quiz, college hoops fans.
Without consulting the internet, answer the following question:
Who is in first place in the Big Ten?
With all the drama swirling around the Indiana program—and with freshman phenom Eric Gordon’s dominance, the Hoosiers have stayed in the public eye the entire season. The Hoosiers are currently ranked near the top 10 and boast a 21-4 record.
Meanwhile, it looks like Tom Izzo has the Spartans back in blue collar mode this year. While they have struggled recently, Michigan State is ranked in the top 15 with a 20-5 record. And the Spartans are always a tough team come tournament time.
Finally, Wisconsin has once again put together another 20-win season and high ranking. The Badgers are also in the top 15 with a 21-4 record.
The answer to the question, however, is none of these teams.
The Purdue Boilermakers are currently sitting atop the Big Ten standings, with a 12-1 record in conference play—including two wins over Wisconsin, a split with Michigan State, and a huge date with Indiana Tuesday night—a game that might just decide the Big Ten winner.
So who are these Boilermakers?
Nicknamed the “Baby Boilers” due to all the freshmen and sophomores logging major minutes, Purdue wins in ways you typically don’t see anymore. Purdue smothers opponents with deadly three-point and free-throw shooting, balanced scoring, old school hustle, and, above all, tough gritty team defense—led by Chris Kramer’s bid for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Chatter about bolting for the NBA? You’re more likely to hear these guys talking about improving their passing or pick-setting.
In other words, Purdue is the antithesis to everything glorified by ESPN’s Ultimate Highlight or And 1 Tour—today’s warped versions of Basketball for Dummies.
A look at Purdue’s overall statistics showcases exactly how unusual this team is.
The leading scorer on the team, freshman guard E'Twaun Moore, posts a rather pedestrian 11.9 ppg. The second leading scorer, another freshman, Robbie Hummel—who is Brian Cardinal reincarnate (minus the male pattern balding syndrome), nets a second-best 11.3 ppg.
The team’s leading rebounder, Hummel, gets only 5.9 rebounds per game. But the Boilers have eight players averaging at least three rebounds a game, an unheard of statistic that has been a key to their success. Despite the lack of a dominant inside presence, the Boilers’ defense is what other Big Ten coaches are talking about.
After the Boilers took down Michigan State, Tom Izzo had this to say, “There’s no question that’s the most physical team in the league. That’s strange to say with freshmen. They’re not like the old Purdue teams when a lot of the players looked like the Boilermaker himself. They’re more of an athletic, skinnier version.”
High praise from a guy whose teams are built on physical play and aggressive defense.
But perhaps the most unbelievable stat for the Baby Boilers is this: No one on this team plays more than 30 minutes per game. And the team goes nine players deep every game.
No me-first superstar. Just a team willing to do all the right things.
The Boilermakers are owners of a current 11-game win streak—and winners of 14 of their last 15. They certainly appear to be peaking at the right time.
The tradition is back for Purdue basketball.
Also back is the crowd support. Dubbed the “Mackey Magic,” Purdue’s Mackey Arena is rocking again—standing room only, face paint, crazed students, the whole nine.
The only thing missing is Gene Keady’s infamous comb-over and blazer throwing tirades. Taking Keady’s place, however, is head coach Matt Painter, the young, energetic recruiting specialist. As great as Painter has recruited, though, it appears the guy knows a little bit about coaching as well.
A Boilermaker himself (’89-’93), Painter transformed a mediocre team Keady left him into a legitimate contender. For the second year in a row, the Boilers have posted at least 20 wins—and back-to-back tournament appearances.
In only three years as head coach, Painter has built this team for the present and the future. It will be interesting to see these Baby Boilers close out this season, but perhaps even more interesting to see what they do in 2008-2009.