Okay, his two points weren’t that significant. He only played 12 minutes. Fouled twice and had two turnovers to go with three rebounds. But make no mistake, the return of starting point guard Lewis Jackson from preseason surgery provided an important emotional boost as his Purdue Boilermakers defended Keady Court at Mackey Arena tonight against #16 Wisconsin, 60-57.
The #10 Boilers needed this win. After a 14-0 start and an AP ranking as high as #4, Purdue went on a 3-game losing streak starting at Madison, Wisconsin January 9, as the Badgers beat Purdue 73-66. The Cornfield Sailors then proceeded to lose to Ohio State in West Lafayette and again at Northwestern. Swan dive or belly flop?
But now Purdue’s back to fundamentals, with a 3-game winning streak that includes victories at Illinois and against Michigan at home. Tonight’s game was a typical Big Ten seesaw bruise-fest; Purdue led by two at halftime, then went on a big run in the second half to lead by 8 with under 4 minutes to go. Typically, the disciplined Badgers raced right back to take a 7-point lead thanks to Keaton Nankivil’s 25 points on 7-of-8 three-point shooting. Such is life in the Big Ten, where if you get too big for your britches, you’ll get beat.
As Purdue Coach Matt Painter stressed to his high-flying team after it crashed down to earth earlier this month, “Success messes with you.” He’s so right. Life is littered with stars, from Janis Joplin to River Phoenix, who couldn’t cope with success. It can be terrifying; what if people find out the ten million things you don’t know and can’t do?
I am hoping that Painter is a better sports psychologist than his predecessor Gene Keady, “the best coach who never made it to the Final Four.” Keady was a mastermind at teaching kids how to play beyond their capabilities. It’s a trait he passed on to his mentee Matt Painter, who played for him from ’79-’83.
The biggest trap in sports is something I call “ego collapse.” You’re doing well, doing well, doing well, then all of a sudden you’re not—and you panic. Out goes the game plan, out goes what you’re good at, and in comes an anxiety attack and even stupid play. Purdue has always been prone to this. Keady, a superb coach and human being, never knew what to say or do to right the ship. It’s hard for older men to coach young guys. So much has changed between his day and theirs that an older coach suddenly lacks the vocabulary when adversity strikes.
Matt Painter is 39. He’s brought this year’s Boilermakers to the brink of real success—watched them falter, and brought them back. Purdue beat gritty, talented Wisconsin tonight, and is now a half-game out of second place behind Wisconsin and undefeated Michigan State.
So the surprise return of Lewis Jackson, after a fast and splendid recovery, is what the experts call an intangible. It’s always good to get one of your key teammates back. The last thought before the players fall asleep tonight will be, “LewJack’s back.” Then they’ll smile and make Z’s.
Their next to last thought will be, “Thank you God for John Hart.”
Hart provided as much emotional spark in the second half as Jackson did in the first. In a short stretch early in the second half as Purdue clung to a narrow lead, he led to an amazing run, doing everything you could ask of a player; he scored, defended, rebounded and blocked. Suddenly he was everywhere on every key play, and the veterans took over from there.
Basketball is emotional; all sports are. John Madden once said he thought football was the most emotional sport, but that’s simply not true. In American football, you run a play, then spend 20 seconds huddling up to discuss the next one. Hoops don’t stop nearly as much, the play keeps going. You’ve got the ball, then there’s a turnover and steal, suddenly you’re running the other way—but the shooter misses, you get the rebound, so run back again! Go go go!
The faster the game, the harder it is for players to keep their emotions in check, to not get too high or too low. The only game as fast and continuous as basketball is hockey—which uses goalies to prevent scoring, the dumbest athletic idea of all time. Audiences like scoring, and goal-tending is illegal in hoops. I wouldn’t give you one thin dime for soccer, no matter how much British thugs riot over it. Would you rather watch a game where the final score is 2-1 or 60-57, much less 102-101?
Hart was superb tonight; he played his role. He’s just a sophomore having to earn his time, but he brought fluid to the charcoal and lit a fire.
I haven’t even mentioned Robbie Hummel, who had a double-double (12 points, 13 fabulous rebounds) or E’twaun Moore (20 points) or JuJuan Johnson (14 points). Give them all credit; they each had their miscues but they played well enough to win despite Nankivil’s personal highlight reel.
Wisconsin’s backcourt combined for 57 points January 9 at Madison; Purdue’s defense held them to 25 tonight.
Losses help you learn; they toughen you up, so that success after success doesn’t make your head swell, knowing that failure is just around the corner. Don’t get too high when you’re high or too low when you’re low, just focus on your next opponent and find a way to beat ’em.
One last note about another man who established himself tonight: Purdue radio broadcaster Larry Clisby’s new sidekick, Ralph Taylor, who played from ’67-’69 on the National Runner-up team. He’s been part of the Purdue radio team off and on for four years, but (I believe) this year he replaced the previous color commentator, Steve Reid, the guy Bobby Knight threw a chair at (okay, deliberately missing), inadvertently becoming a YouTube sensation. Reid’s grammar was appalling, much less for a Purdue alumnus, but he knew the game and was an unabashed homer, and I liked him. Now we’ve got this guy named Taylor, the first African-American on Purdue’s broadcast team. I must have seen him play back in the late ’60s during the Rick Mount years (I went to Purdue ’68-’69 and ’70-’72), but I don’t remember him. From tonight, though, I will. He explained, time after time, how Nankivil scored all those points. Purdue’s Johnson repeatedly left the high post to help out a guard, which left Nankivil uncovered, and no one rotated over. Time after time!
Without Nankivil, Purdue might have blown out Wisconsin. But Johnson got suckered every time, and Wilson tracked the pattern. He added a lot to the broadcast.
So bye-bye Wisconsin and Nankovil, great game and yeah yeah; we won’t be surprised to see you again in the B10 tournament or the NCAA. But I’ll be very surprised if Matt Painter doesn’t kick ass and massage his boys into understanding: Success messes with you, but only if you let it. Stay centered, do what you’re good at, don’t panic, never say die, screw ’em if they can’t take a joke, and stay confident even when (as they did tonight) the refs call the second half completely different from the first half. The officials started acting like they got paid by the number of fouls they called (though the teams ended up equal).
It’s hard on players when the rules seem to change at halftime, but they’ve got to roll with the punches.
Star of the game: Hummel. Best performance: Ninkivil. Best analyst: Taylor. Winner: Purdue.++