Osipoff: Boilers got the max out of transition season
By Michael Osipoff firstname.lastname@example.org/648-3137 March 19, 2012 11:18PM
Updated: April 21, 2012 8:13AM
Amazingly, Purdue probably should be meeting North Carolina State in St. Louis for a Sweet 16 game.
Realistically, the Boilermakers maxed out in this bizarro season, one that marked the dawn of a new era, or at the very least, the transition from the heady days of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore to the next generation, with Robbie Hummel serving as the unexpected bridge — and doing it as only he could, capped by his epic performance against Kansas.
As the calendar turned to February, the Boilermakers’ postseason destination was uncertain; that they were able to journey from that point to defeat Saint Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 64, extending their much-mentioned streak of opening wins to 14, and to nearly shock Kansas is simply remarkable.
Again, Purdue was, really, one play away (pick one, any one ...) from upsetting the Jayhawks.
It was a near-perfect storm for the Boilermakers.
Matt Painter and the coaching staff devised a magnificent game plan that included focusing their defensive efforts on containing national player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson and standout guard Tyshawn Taylor; the players executed splendidly, including swarming to hold Robinson to 2-of-12 shooting. Heck, the Boilermakers forced the Jayhawks to adjust to them, after most of the pregame chatter had centered on if Purdue could match up with the size of Kansas.
Purdue shot lights out, especially in the first half, as it needed to do. Kansas shot poorly.
Hummel played one of the games of his life — and you know what that kind of statement means in the context of his career — shredding a series of Kansas defenders. It wasn’t until the Jayhawks employed a box-and-one and a triangle-and-two, and their length and athleticism started to take hold, that the Boilermakers’ offense grinded down.
Along the way, there were the brutal blown leads at Xavier and against Butler, and the boggling blowout loss at Penn State.
There was the loss to Wisconsin at Mackey Arena that ended the 26-game home win streak, and subsequent home losses to Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State.
That loss to the Hoosiers really did seem to serve as a turning point for the Boilermakers, with their season possibly teetering on the brink.
This Purdue team, constituted differently than previous ones, turned more offensive-minded and veered from its traditional pressure defense (though, how ever the Boilermakers achieved the results, despite their defensive issues during the course of the season, they did shut down Saint Mary’s point guard Matthew Dellavedova, and slow down the Kansas duo of Robinson and Taylor). A smaller lineup — skilled, able to spread the floor, make 3-pointers, drive to the basket and limit turnovers — sparked the resurgence. It had to be painful for Painter, unwavering in his basketball beliefs and who puts such a premium on defending, to make such a concession. But he did what had to be done, much to his credit.
And, of course, it was Hummel, healthier and more at peace, who largely carried the team with a glorious month-and-a-half, playing at probably the highest level of his illustrious Purdue career. Something seemed amiss during the Big Ten Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament opener against Saint Mary’s, but he returned to rare form against Kansas, creating the enduring images in his final game in a Boilermakers uniform with 26 points and nine rebounds (for the record, he finished ninth on Purdue’s all-time scoring list and fourth in rebounds). For sure, he made that taxing midseason shooting slump — all he was asked to do was be the front man on his twice-reconstructed right knee, for a team on which he shouldn’t even have been and a team that was dramatically different from the one on which he last had played — but a faded memory. The ultra-competitor engaged in self-flagellation when he wasn’t quite yet ready for that role, but he was more than up to the challenge when it mattered most.
In short, the guy is one-of-a-kind.
Along with Hummel, this season also was a testament to seniors Lewis Jackson and Ryne Smith, who refused to allow their last go-around to end anywhere but the NCAA Tournament. When they got benched — in a season in which Purdue used 10 different starting lineups and 10 different players started games, with each getting at least three — they responded with “character,” as Painter knew they would.
The Class of 2012 finished with 104 wins, second in program history behind only the 107 from 2011 graduates Johnson and Moore.
And, really, by the time the season had come to an end, pretty much everyone on the roster had contributed in some way, shape or form. For example, junior D.J. Byrd emerged as a borderline All-Big Ten player, and figures to be a team leader next season; and sophomore Terone Johnson, who wasn’t himself early in the season after offseason knee surgery, averaged 15.1 points in the last eight games, scoring in double figures in each one, as he got healthier and with additional opportunity. And sophomore Sandi Marcius played valuable minutes in the final three games, after having been buried on the bench; and sophomore Travis Carroll knows what to do, and battled to do it. And redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson showed considerable potential, if he can harness his occasional over-exuberance; and freshman Jacob Lawson has gobs of athletic ability, if he can continue to learn Purdue’s concepts.
Hummel, with his knee(s), and Jackson, first with his foot and then his back (was any body part spared during his career?), hardly practiced for much of the season, hindering the team’s development.
Yes, there was the Byrd suspension/Kelsey Barlow dismissal (did Smith prove correct with his well-circulated comment?).
But in the end, none of the noise mattered.
Through it all, Purdue persevered, as Hummel said.
The Boilermakers peaked at the right time, winning a series of what essentially amounted to must-win games, with the one at Michigan (the Wolverines’ lone home loss of the season) all but securing the tournament bid. To follow, the Senior Night rout/celebration against Penn State was special.
The post-Kansas scene was incredibly emotional for the Boilermakers, as you can imagine. They absolutely should be bitterly disappointed — crushed, heartbroken — that they’re not preparing to play North Carolina State with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
Perhaps such a missed opportunity is something you never fully get over.
But with time, and additional perspective, they’ll realize not only what they didn’t accomplish, but also what they did.