The 4th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers dominated #6 West Virginia this afternoon in college basketball, 77-62 at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette.
And my goodness, did Purdue look stellar. This could be their year to go to the Final Four.
Center JaJuan Johnson was a crusher today, but just as exciting was the Boilers’ spectacular defense, led by guard Chris Kramer, the “Secretary of Defense,” and forward Robbie Hummel. Here’s how the AP reported it.
Purdue impressive in rout of No. 6 West Virginia
By CLIFF BRUNT
The Associated Press
JaJuan Johnson had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 4 Purdue beat No. 6 West Virginia 77-62 on Friday in a matchup of unbeatens.
Robbie Hummel scored 18 points and E’Twaun Moore added 15 for the Boilermakers (13-0). Purdue (13-0) completed its nonconference schedule and is one of five unbeaten teams in the nation.
Purdue handled West Virginia’s star guard combination of Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks. Butler scored 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Ebanks scored 11 points on 3-of-7 shooting.
Purdue outscored West Virginia 14-2 in the first 3:26 of the second half to take control. The Boilermakers’ largest lead was 26 points.
I’m so excited. I got to see this game on ESPN, the first time I’ve seen this team play, because I no longer have season tickets or television service. I’m thinking of subscribing to cable, even though I hate TV, because this could be the year I’ve waited for my entire life.
When I was six years old and in first grade, my mother left home to enroll in pharmacy school. She spent a semester at Ohio Northern University, then we moved back to Indiana so she could go to Purdue, the #1 pharmacy school in the world. She loved Purdue and did extremely well; she was so glad to go to college and use her mind in the service of humanity. She studied all the time, and seldom came home on weekends because, well, who needs to be around three demanding grade school boys when she had an organic chemistry test coming up? But when she did come home, she taught us the Purdue Fight Song and made sure we’d pass the quiz on it with flying colors, Old Gold and Black.
Thus I’ve been rooting for Purdue athletically and academically since I was 7. My brothers are the same way (even though the black sheep went to the Wrong School). Cheering for Purdue teams was a way to cheer for our Mom, and once the twig is bent, that’s how it grows.
High school and college basketball is the state religion of Indiana, and I’m a fervent believer. If the devil ever tries to tempt me, my soul for a National Championship, I’d have to think about it—though I’d hold out for Gay rights AND a National Championship.
God would understand both the selfishness and the self-sacrifice in that; God’s got all kinds of ways to beat the devil. God’s even more dominant than Johnson was this afternoon.
Now the thing about this Purdue team is that it’s largely made up of Indiana schoolboys, and always has been. Thirteen players on this 17-man squad are Hoosier kids. Head coach Matt Painter, a Purdue alum who played for former coach Gene Keady, is from Muncie. In-state recruiting is how Painter built this team up from the depths to which it sank in Keady’s last year, a sad end to a storied career; Keady correctly allowed his longtime associate head coach Bruce Weber to accept the head coaching job at Southern Illinois, but the recruiting talent went away with him. So Keady brought back Painter as his top assistant while Keady did his swan song as “the best coach who never made it to the Final Four.” I was there at Mackey for Keady’s last game and still have the poster commemorating it nailed to the wall of my garage, “Thank You Coach.” Keady was terrific, ran a clean program and stressed academics—but at the end he couldn’t recruit.
I was dubious when Painter was hired; he had only one year of Division I head coaching experience at Southern Illinois, having previously served as an assistant to Weber before the latter got the head job at Illinois. There are advantages and disadvantages to hiring an alumnus like Painter; we knew him as a player and we liked him, but his résumé seemed thin. And sometimes when you hire an alum instead of conducting a national search, emotion and loyalty seem like the operating principles instead of coaching talent. Well, he’s proven me wrong. Matt Painter has molded this team to function as a unit hitting on all cylinders. Purdue does not have future NBA draft picks this year, and seldom does, though a number of former players have gone on to professional careers; it’s not that kind of program and never has been. It’s always been built on Hoosier schoolboys who play together under dynamic, intelligent coaches who are students of the game, and nice guys. Painter is well within that tradition, so here’s to Keady and Athletic Director Morgan Burke for bringing back Painter. In his first season after Keady’s departure, Purdue won only nine games. And this year’s they’re 13-0, ranked 4th in the nation, an incredible turnaround.
He is a worthy successor to the beloved Keady. But the credit has to go to the kids, Kramer, Hummel, Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, Keaton Grant. And this is without starting point guard Lewis Jackson, who’s out with an injury and isn’t expected back until February or March. The point guard is the most important man on the squad, like a quarterback in football; where would the Indianapolis Colts be if they lost Peyton Manning to start the year? But the Boilers just rock on.
The underclassmen are also producing; today it was Ryne Smith’s day off the bench, scoring 7 points and grabbing 4 rebounds in 21 minutes. In previous games other newbies have made good contributions to give Purdue some depth.
So there’s hope this year in West Lafayette and all its surrounding cornfields. The Big Ten season is just starting, and the experts say the whole conference is on the rise. Michigan State is still considered the favorite, and no one bets against coach Tom Izzo. But the #11 Spartans have shown some vulnerabilities with a record of 10-3 and losses to unranked Florida, #9 North Carolina and #2 Texas, and meanwhile #23 Wisconsin is raising eyebrows, Illinois is tough, so is Northwestern, and Ohio State’s currently #15. So the Big Ten is a wide-open race, and if Painter can prepare the Boilermakers as well as he did today against West Virginia, the conference could be Purdue’s for the taking.
There’s a lot of basketball yet to be played, and I almost look forward to Purdue’s first loss; losing teaches you something that winning does not. Without any superstars Purdue must keep playing as a team and avoid the anxiety attack that comes when they find themselves behind. Most teams in that situation start to panic, abandon the game plan, and players start thinking “I have to do something” instead of “We have to.” That’s a guaranteed formula for falling farther behind. So far Purdue’s avoided that trap; they were down 16 points at Alabama and still came back to win by playing team ball. It’s a sign of maturity, and this year’s squad features three outstanding juniors (Hummel, Johnson and Moore) and two solid seniors (Kramer, Grant). They’ve been through this before. Maybe they’ve learned the lessons of previous losses. Another lesson or two this year might be good for them come March Madness. They’re not invulnerable; they have to stick together and listen to their coach. Basketball isn’t a track meet, where you can win a gold medal while the rest of the team loses. In basketball if a team sucks, so do you; if a team wins, so do you.
That’s how it’s played here in my home state. In other places it’s different; the traditional national powers, bolstered by years of success and publicity, recruit stars from all over the world and try to make them into a team. Here, you start with teammates and try to make them into a powerful engine that can defeat the Big Guys.
I have every respect for the big-name teams; they’re the elite of the sport, from Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and a few others. Year after year they’re great, and nothing succeeds like success. High school players want to go to those schools, and no one can blame them. Those universities have top-notch coaches, facilities and fan support, and have earned their reputations. Purdue is only periodically among the elite, depending on that year’s talent. Every basketball fan in the country knows Purdue’s name, but probably doesn’t know where the school is located or what its academic reputation is (besides pharmacy: Top Ten in engineering, aeronautics, undergraduate business, veterinary, agriculture, education and more). Most people think it’s a private school but in fact it’s a major public research institution; the current President, Dr. France DeCordova, is the former Chief Scientific Officer at NASA.
This is a school built by Indiana farmers and taxpayers. A hundred years ago, the president of Purdue founded the Big Ten Conference, ushering in the first regulation of academic athletics; it is the oldest conference in the nation. Purdue is its winningest basketball school, not Michigan State, Ohio State or That Other School. Purdue maintains a winning record against every other member of the conference. It won the mythical national championship in 1932, led by the legendary John Wooden, who went on to have some success as a coach at UCLA; but the Boilermakers have never won an NCAA Championship in the modern era. (The NCAA didn’t conduct a basketball tournament until 1939, and for two decades battled the rival National Invitation Tournament in New York for supremacy. Finally, through superior marketing, TV deals and economic clout, the NCAA established March Madness and bought out the NIT).
In basketball terms, maybe Purdue is Old School. It doesn’t build new stadiums and arenas every 20 years. Its coaches make good money but they’re not millionaires. They graduate their players; they run clean programs. A Purdue head coach has never been fired in my lifetime; no scandal here. Purdue players don’t get arrested on drugs and weapons charges, as happened this weekend to four players at Tennessee. I can think of only one Boilermaker who left early for the NBA, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, a kid from impoverished Gary, Indiana; he gave us three good years and an Elite Eight appearance in 1994, and no one begrudged his leaving. One of his teammates, Cuonzo Martin, is now the head coach at Missouri State after serving as a Purdue assistant for Matt Painter. That’s how we tend to do things; we’re known for defense more than offense, and no one in the NBA bothers with defense anymore.
Which brings me back to today’s game, which I drove 30 miles to a sports bar on New Year’s Day to watch. Purdue had 9 steals (4 by Grant), West Virginia had 3. The Mountaineers had 17 turnovers; the Boilers had 7. As great a game as Johnson had inside, and he was nearly flawless with 25 points, Purdue broke open this tight game by its dogged pursuit of the unglamorous. The Secretary of Defense didn’t even score, but he didn’t have to; Chris Kramer is the best in the country at what he does. He inspires his teammates by hard work in the best Purdue tradition. The turning point in the game occurred with a play you’ll never see on SportsCenter: late in the first half, Hummel got a 5-second call on his man. Hummel guarded him so perfectly that he couldn’t move, couldn’t pass, couldn’t do anything; turnover Mountaineers. The minute Hummel got the whistle he pounded his fists like a madman.
That’s how Hoosier schoolboys play this game. They’re always underdogs, like my mother was, and just once in my lifetime I want to see them win it all.
Cheering for Purdue = cheering for my Mom, when there isn’t any Pharmacy Madness to show how good she really was. Basketball is a substitute, a proxy, for undersized kids from no-account places who still can rise to the top.++
UPDATE: Here’s what The New York Times saw. As usual, you’ll get more depth and perspective from them than any other newspaper in the country. But you read it all here first.
In Their Own Quiet Way, Boilermakers Are Making Some Noise
By RAY GLIER
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — John Wooden’s jersey hangs from the rafters of Mackey Arena, which adds to the almost holy perception that basketball in Indiana has to be played with precision and modesty. The first pass can never be the last pass, chemistry matters, teamwork above all else.
No. 4 Purdue (13-0) does all those magnanimous things, but then it can go off the bounce as if it were at the playground and say, “The heck with the playbook.”
There was E’Twaun Moore, a 6-foot-4 junior from East Chicago, flying in to stuff back his missed free throw with one hand against No. 6 West Virginia. There was JaJuan Johnson, a 6-10 post player from Indianapolis, taking a lob for a slam. Keaton Grant, a 6-4 senior from Kissimmee, Fla., roared in with another dunk to finish a 9-2 run.
“We have good players and our individual players together, I think, are what makes us special,” Coach Matt Painter said. “We have talented guys and when you play together and share the basketball, sometimes your individual guys don’t quite get the credit. We have three guys who could score 20 points for a lot of teams.”
On a day devoted to college football, Mackey Arena was filled from floor to ceiling with a sellout crowd (14,123) as Purdue played basketball the way it is supposed to be done: with pressure defense, precision offense and some Show Time.
Purdue plays such a rough-house defense, led by the best defensive player in the Big Ten, guard Chris Kramer, that the Boilermakers invite elbows to the face. Kelsey Barlow, a reserve guard, had a spot of blood on a front tooth from one blow, and Moore got popped on the chin.
“Guys don’t like you to be in their face, so you’re going to get one eventually,” Moore said. “Coach expects us to play through it.”
Painter is willing to wait and not proclaim his team a contender with Kansas, Kentucky and Texas. He wants to see more. His players have seen enough.
“Once we are clicking on all cylinders, we’re a dangerous team,” Johnson said.