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Purdue’s Kramer Up for Senior Class Award

Chris Kramer, the Secretary of Defense.

Tonight, one of the most important annual events in my home state occurs, as the Purdue men’s basketball team travels to Bloomington to take on that hated Other School.

(I laughed, typing that. The fans do hate each other, but right now my dog Luke is sleeping under his IU blanket. It is, of course, fit for a dog.)

The Boilermakers, ranked 7th in the country according to the coaches’ poll, are expected to beat the hapless Hoosiers, but it will probably be a knockdown dragout battle. You can catch it on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Eastern. I’ll be watching at the Colonial Inn downtown.

Both teams feature homegrown talent. Seven members of Indiana’s squad are in-state products, while Purdue boasts ten local boys—among them Chris Kramer of Huntington, who’s a finalist for the senior class award sponsored by a chain of home improvement stores. The winner is partly determined by fan voting; go here.

Kramer’s profile details a lot of things I didn’t know about his community involvement. He’s active with the Boys and Girls Club, an after-school agency for kids at risk. That means something to me, because it’s the favorite charity of my fictional hero Kent Kessler, a former Major League Baseball player. Boys and Girls Clubs provide sports and recreational opportunities to kids, as well as academic tutoring and mentoring, a chance to succeed. Sometimes the B&GC makes a difference in whether a kid stays in school or drops out, gets a decent job or turns criminal; a kid needs someone to take an interest in her, and Chris Kramer does.

He’s also active with the Southside Community Center (child abuse prevention, youth development, food pantry and family support) and Special Olympics. He majors in Organizational Development and Supervision at Purdue and carries a 3.12 cumulative grade point average.

He may not be that thrilled to be featured in a Gay Spirit Diary, but tough luck, bud. He’s awfully cute; this is not my fault. Best of all, he epitomizes what Purdue basketball is all about: tenacious defense, clutch shooting, self-sacrifice, teamwork, all while cutting it with the books.

I’m proud of him. I hope he has every success.

And let no reviewer on Amazon criticize the choice of a smart, principled, athletic hero; such men do exist, despite the all-pervasive culture that tries to drag them down. Every one of the Lowe’s senior all-stars deserves our accolades; Kramer’s just one of nine outstanding players who are becoming outstanding men. “Classroom. Community. Character. Competition.” — That’s the slogan for this website that hopes to do something good.

Go, vote for Chris Kramer or anyone else who strikes your fancy. In this age of horrible dehumanization, take a minute to reward some young guys for doing good. Text M7 to 74567.

Every photo I’ve ever seen of Kramer shows his tongue hanging out. I mean, what’s not to like? GO BOILERS!++

Kramer jogs off-court past Minnesota coach Tubby Smith after Kramer's halftime buzzer-beater. (Brent Drinkut/Journal and Courier)

LewJack Gives Boilers a Boost to Beat Wisconsin, 60-57

Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson (23) saw action tonight for the first time since pre-season foot surgery. (Michael Conroy/AP)

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.”

Purdue's John Hart (32) and Robbie Hummel (4) defend as Illinois' Mike Davis (24) goes to the basket at Assembly Hall in Champaign on Jan. 19. Purdue won 84-78. (AP Photo/Robin Scholz)

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.++

Mr. Taylor

Badgers Knock the Boilers Down a Peg or Two, 73-66

Jordan Taylor against Duke. (Wisconsin State Journal)

It’s a cold, cold day in northern Indiana. The temperature hasn’t been above freezing since well before Christmas, and the #4 Purdue Boilermakers lost to #17 Wisconsin this afternoon in Madison, breaking their record-tying win streak at 14.

No Big Ten fans can be terribly surprised by this; Bo Ryan’s a great coach, Wisconsin’s a tough team and it’s very hard to win on the road in the power conferences. The Badgers outplayed Purdue today, led by Jordan Taylor, who had a career day with 23 points. The bench play from Wisconsin (33 points) was outstanding, and the Cheesehead guards shot the lights out.

Still, it’s a very disappointing loss for Purdue fans; the Boilermakers beat themselves in the most fundamental aspect of the game, free throw shooting. Every one of them native-born Hoosiers deserves a whuppin’.

JaJuan Johnson (7 miserable points, 1 of 7 free throws), I don’t even want to see your face for a week. Robbie Hummel (3 of 13 field goals), your little white ass is gonna turn red.

Free throws win ballgames! Wisconsin made them and Purdue did not.

Even Chris Kramer ought to be tossed in the dungeon with the Ledermeister. What a sorry spectacle to start off 2010.

In a free throw, here’s what happens. You have been fouled; an opposing player made an illegal move against you, so the clock stops. You get the ball; you walk to the free throw line, which is 19 feet from the baseline, 15 feet from the basket. You get to shoot the ball with no one opposing you. Your shot is free! There is no one opposing you whatsoever. Your opponents are required to stay away from the basket while you shoot. They can’t even move until your ball touches the rim.

Because of these rules, players who decide to become good free throw shooters (that decision is the essential ingredient) can practice the same motion over and over and over until they get it right. There isn’t a damn thing your opponent can do to stop you; you get to shoot for free.

Hoosier schoolboys excel at free throws, because in basketball, every last point you score matters. Many games are decided by one point. Championships rise or fall on free throw shooting.

It’s both the least glamorous and the most important aspect of the game; you get a throw that’s free. Judas Priest, get it through your thick head!

However, many modern players don’t like practicing free throws, because they never get on SportsCenter by successfully converting a static play. TV demands action, motion, bodies moving, a picture that mesmerizes the couch potatoes. Casual fans don’t like free throws, because they stop the action; and casual fans are where the money gets made by TV networks, teams and stars. Hardcore fans will watch every aspect of a game, but casual fans doze off. Nothing is happening, so they grab another beer and a bag of pretzels, even though the game itself hangs in the balance.

Wisconsin was superb at the charity stripe today. Purdue sucked. JuJuan, get the fuck out. You’re not even allowed to get your ass beat by the Ledermeister.

Here’s why free throws should matter to Indiana schoolboys; for reasons historical, ethnic, cultural, biological and demographic, we tend not to be very tall, when basketball is a game that rewards height. The closer you can get to the basket the more likely you are to score.

Like all Americans, Indiana kids are slowly getting taller as evolution and better nutrition make that possible. Any given kid might be tall (Hummel’s 6’8″), but as a group we tend to lag behind a bit, especially in rural areas, where shorter moms and dads hook up and produce shorter babies. I’m 5’5″—and taller than both my parents. It’s still rare in my hometown to come across a 6-footer, even though kids are taller these days.

Thus it’s in the interest of Hoosier schoolboys who want to get good at basketball to become very, very skilled at sinking foul shots. It’s a way to overcome our natural disadvantage; no defense allowed!

So today Johnson missed and missed and missed; Hummel hit his freebies but missed everything else, Kramer missed, none of them were any good. Wisconsin won by 7 points; Purdue missed 11 free throws, for no good reason. I’m disgusted. I’d whup ’em all if I could.

Though I admit I’d start with Kramer, easily the hottest stud of the bunch. 🙂

I mean, it’s not like they grow ’em any taller in Wisconsin!

Maybe the colder it is, the more isolated the bleak and lonely landscape, the more inclined schoolboys are to practice free throws and perfect their move. The Badgers missed 5 (22 of 27) today, the Boilers missed 11 (13 of 24).

I swear, I’d take a belt to every one of these Purdue kids. Our freshmen played like freshmen; Wisconsin’s played like men. Purdue will drop in the rankings, even though it isn’t a bad loss. Now we will see whether Hummel, Johnson, E’Twaun Moore (24 points, Purdue’s only real offense), Kramer and the abysmal Keaton Grant (4 lousy points in 18 minutes) have learned they are not invincible. I bet coach Matt Painter chews ’em a new one and makes it personalized.

Myself, I’d just throw ’em all in a cage with the Ledermeister. It’s time somebody made a man out of ’em.++

Oldie but goodie.

Purdue Beats Minnesota’s Full-Court Press, 79-60; Equals Best Start in School History

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are a damn good team. Coached by National Champion Tubby Smith (Kentucky 1998), the Gophers’ full-court press pushed Purdue hard before falling 79-60. This year’s Cornfield Sailors have tied the best start by the Boilermakers in school history, and Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson is suddenly getting ink again. Fourth-ranked Purdue is 14-0.

Minnesota forced more Purdue turnovers than any other team this season. Purdue’s made fewer mistakes this year than any other team I can remember, 7, 9, 10, 6; the Boilermakers have been outstanding in not beating themselves. But Minnesota has been almost as careful handling the ball, with only 12 turnovers average. They forced Purdue into 17 tonight. This Gopher team is going to do some damage in the Big Ten.

Still Purdue won at home by 19. They did it by crashing the boards and shooting well. Four Boilers scored in double figures (Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, E’twaun Moore, Chris Kramer), with Hummel and Johnson recording double-doubles (11 and 10 rebounds). I can’t remember the last time Purdue had two players making double-doubles; it’s a rare achievement, denoting a well-rounded game.

Minnesota is known for its rebounding, but they only beat Purdue by two in that category. Meanwhile Chris Kramer, Purdue’s Secretary of Defense, scored a season-high 15 points. In his last game against #6 West Virginia, Kramer didn’t score, but tonight he came up big. This was Purdue’s 500th win at Mackey Arena.

The Boilers broke out to an 8-0 lead, then the Gophers stormed back to take the lead, before falling bigtime. Kramer hit his first 3-pointer of the season to close out the half.

Kramer jogs off-court past Minnesota coach Tubby Smith after Kramer's halftime buzzer-beater. (Brent Drinkut/Journal and Courier)

This team feels nothing like Robinson’s ’93-’94 team; he was a dominant player. This year’s Purdue squad doesn’t have any first-round NBA draft picks, but it wins just like Robinson’s buddies did.

No doubt coach Matt Painter is going to have a lot to jaw about this week in practice; 17 turnovers, including two straight unforced errors by Johnson in the second half. Purdue’s got plenty of room for improvement as they head to Madison on Saturday to face #20 Wisconsin. The days of wine and roses are over, baby; you’ve got to work hard to beat the Badgers at home. They don’t like you up there. (Wisconsin fans are some of my favorites in the Big Ten.)

Meanwhile this W over the Gophers is a win to savor. Hummel and Johnson with double-doubles, Kramer with 15. Four guys in double figures!

Wow. These Indiana schoolboys are shocking the nation, because they play like a team. “Oh,” the skeptics say, “that’s nice. But wait till Purdue has to play Kansas (Kentucky, Texas, Duke, yadda yadda).” So much of college basketball hangs on a school’s past reputation rather than this year’s play. The traditional powers rule as much by what a school did 10, 20 and 50 years ago as by what they do today. The AP poll is especially bad at this; the coaches’ poll is more reliable. Purdue is ranked 4th by both, but what’s the objective fact? The RPI shows Purdue at #4, Kansas at 7, Texas at 13 and Kentucky at 15. The RPI has West Virginia at #1—the same Mountaineer squad the Boilermakers blew out at Mackey Arena on Friday.

But here’s the best news in this still-young season: ESPN’s latest Bracketology shows Purdue rated the #1 seed going into the NCAA Tournament. This could be the year, baby. This could be the year.++

Purdue Wins Battle of the Undefeateds, 77-62

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.

JaJuan Johnson of Indianapolis was not a great star in high school.

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.

Purdue men's basketball coach Matt Painter

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 '32 he was known as Johnny Wooden, not the Wizard of Westwood. Back then he was just an Indiana schoolboy.

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.

Valparaiso, Indiana's Robbie Hummel

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.

Kramer, left, of Huntington, Indiana, and E'Twaun Moore of East Chicago, Indiana.