Dear P.J. Thompson

Dear P.J. Thompson,

Yesterday, you played your last game in Mackey Arena. You have at least two games remaining in a Purdue uniform, and perhaps as many as nine more, but they will all be happen away from the friendly confines of Keady Court.

The regular season didn’t end quite like we all might have hoped. After a 19-game winning streak, three consecutive losses cost you a chance to repeat as Big Ten Champions. It’s not your fault, but it’s no coincidence that those games were ones where you disappeared from the stat sheets.

P.J., you will not make the NBA. You’re 5’10”. You’re not a flashy scorer. You’re not a steal machine. And yet, you’re perhaps the most important player on the team. And you’re surrounded by some really damn good basketball players.

But nobody in basketball is a more solid, reliable player than you are. Even though your assist rate has gone down significantly this year, you still had twice as many assists as turnovers. We all feel safe when the ball is in your hands. And though you don’t take too many three pointers, you make nearly half of them. And you seem to have a knack for hitting a big three at just the right time.

A deep tournament run is still possible. And it’s possible in part because you are a solid-but-not-great player who works hard, helps his teammates, and works hard some more. You’re exactly what a Purdue basketball player should be.

So enjoy the tournament. You’ve earned it. And thanks for four great years representing Purdue University.

Purdue Boilermakers: Big Ten champions

The men’s basketball season ended for Purdue last night, with a close victory in Evanston against the Northwestern Wildcats. But in a sense, that game did not matter. No matter the outcome, Northwestern is likely to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. More importantly (to me), Purdue had already secured the outright conference title. Purdue now has 23 Big Ten titles to its name, reclaiming sole possession of the lead after Indiana tied it up last year.

Speaking of Indiana, it was against the hated in-state rivals that the Boilermakers clinched a share of the title. To be able to secure a trophy at home, on senior night, against a bitter rival? That was a special treat for team and fans alike. When the final horn sounded, confetti burst from the ceiling and the trophy was presented to the team.

Confetti rains down after Purdue defeats Indiana and claims a share of the Big Ten title. February 28, 2017

The Purdue men’s basketball team celebrates with their trophy.

Earlier in the season, it seemed like Wisconsin had the title all but locked up. A few head-scratching losses by Purdue made the title seem out of reach. But Wisconsin was a paper tiger.

Despite holding the conference title record, it had been 21 years since the last time Purdue won the title outright (and seven years since the last title). Promising seasons in the early part of this decade were cut short by injury, or by underperformance, or by who knows what. A string of consecutive first-round wins in the NCAA tournament came to an end with heartbreaking losses in consecutive years. Purdue fans were hungry, so being able to celebrate a season that seemed destined for failure felt really good.

Up next, we hope, deep runs in the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament.

Sports rules

Not like “sports rules!”, but the rules of sport. My beloved Boilermakers went down to Bloomington and beat the Hoosiers on Thursday night. It was a joy to behold, with the exception of one weird call toward the end of the game. It’s been called a “blarge“. IU’s Thomas Bryant lowered his shoulder and barreled into Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. One referee called a blocking foul on Swanigan, another called a charge against Bryant (it was a charge). As a result, the call was a double foul.

This turns out to be the correct way to handle it. It’s also really terrible. Those two calls are mutually-exclusive. Especially in this circumstance, because it caused each team’s best player to foul out in the final minutes of a close rivalry game.

But it got me thinking about how and why the rules of sports get changed. Major League Baseball is apparently considering a rule change to speed up extra innings. I hope that goes nowhere. In my mind, it’s a fundamental change to how the game is played. Ostensibly, it’s to shorten games. MLB has made several changes over the past few years to try to speed the game up.

But here’s the thing: I like baseball because it’s a slow game. Baseball is a deliberate game that invites conversation and statistical analysis in-game. I don’t mind rule changes, but they should be to improve the game. Speed isn’t automatically an improvement. It can even be a detriment.

Coach of the Year?

On Monday night, the Big Ten conference announced the annual postseason honors for men’s basketball. It may come as no surprise that the Coach of the Year winners finished first (Bo Ryan in the coaches’ voting) and second (Mark Turgeon in the media voting) in the conference. Winning basketball games is a good way to get recognized for your coaching prowess. Some Purdue fans were upset that Matt Painter did not get recognized in light of the turnaround that his Boilermakers showed from the end of non-conference play.

After all, this is a team that finished last in the conference last year and was projected to finish toward the bottom again this year. Instead, after a string of embarrassing losses in December made the idea of an NCAA tournament bid nearly a pipe dream, the team got it together and finished in a tie for third place. Surely that is a sign of an excellent coaching job, right?

It is, but there’s a catch. Sure, Painter’s team exceeded expectations, but the expectations became low on his watch. It’s not like Painter inherited a depleted roster this year, as he did when he took over for Gene Keady a decade ago. Since walking into a 9-win season his first year, he had several teams that competed for a regular season title, one Big Ten Tournament winner, and two Sweet 16 appearances. The momentum was there, and for whatever reason (I’m inclined to say recruiting the wrong players for his system, among other reasons), the team slipped. Recruiting is part of the job, so why not reward a coach for having a roster talented enough to win the conference?

I understand that reasoning, but I’m not sure I agree with it. After all, the award is Coach of the Year, not Coach of the Years. The fact that Matt Painter wasn’t doing his job well enough for a few years shouldn’t handicap him now. But they don’t give me a ballot, and I can’t help but think those who reflexively vote for the top-performing teams regardless of expectations make a reasonable argument. After all, there are some coaches who can make a lot of the talent they have (Tim Miles last year), there are some coaches who can bring in talent but underperform (Tom Crean), but the successful coaches in the Big Ten are the ones who can get talented players and make the most of them (Ryan, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta). Matt Painter has shown the ability to do both, but not necessarily at the same time. If he can get both parts of the coaching duties in line, he’ll have plenty of awards to put on his trophy shelf.

The NCAA: stupid or really stupid?

There are few coaches in basketball that are so widely respected for both coaching ability and all-around-good-guyness as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo.  This is what makes his recent one-game suspension a thing of stupidity.  Izzo was punished for violating a new NCAA rule because someone “associated with a potential recruit” worked for a week at an MSU basketball camp for middle schoolers.  The amount this person was paid?  $475.  For services rendered, no less.  I have a friend who works at Purdue and her cousin is on a team.  Are we breaking the rules, too?

What makes this even more appalling is the lack of punishment for Cam Newton and several other Ohio State football players.  I’m willing to grant that the NCAA was unable to prove that Newton was involved in the dealing, and that no money apparently changed hands, but the same can’t be said for the Ohio State players who traded memorabilia in exchange for cash and services.  These players have all been handed five game suspensions, but they won’t be in effect until the 2011 season.  This means that they’ll still be playing in their bowl game on Saturday, and some of them will be in the NFL next year, which means they effectively face no punishment at all.

I feel bad for the student athletes.  They’re unable to make any money off their own effort while everyone around them is getting rich, but they’re subject to the arbitrary and capricious rulings of the NCAA.

Who doubted Purdue? Not this guy!

You’ll have to excuse this post.  It’s one of complete fanboyism, written while still under the influence of a nail-biting win and the 92 fluid ounces of Killian’s I had at Buffalo Wild Wings.  If you don’t want to read my excited babbling, it can all be summed up in two words “Boiler up!”  Remember a week ago when everyone was saying that Siena would be the only 14-seed to be favored in the first round?  Remember how even President Obama had written Purdue off?  Remember how the Big East was God’s gift to college basketball?  It seems things have changed.

Purdue has earned its way back into a second consecutive Sweet 16.  Like I had written last week, the Boilers needed the bench to step up.  D.J. Byrd and Ryne Smith certainly earned their scholarships this weekend, although Patrick Bade made some solid contributions of his own. But it was senior Chris M.F. Kramer who really carried the team through the first two rounds.  Kramer simply refused to let his career be over, and in a repeat of the game at Alabama in December, took the team on his shoulders at the end and carried them to victory.

Let’s be honest, it’s not all beautiful for Purdue.  When JaJuan Johnson is shooting from the perimeter, there’s absolutely no one to get an offensive rebound.  E’Twaun Moore scored 15 points, but was still 7 of 17 from the field. Point guards Lewis Jackson and Kelsey Barlow still make some really poor decisions at times.  Despite all this, Purdue is still one of only 16 teams playing in the NCAA tournament at the end of the week.  Very few people outside of the Purdue locker room and the loyal fans even considered this as a possibility.  You know what?  Some of us still believe that this Purdue team, without Robbie Hummel, could get past Duke and make it into the Elite 8.  How’s that for a big middle finger to the “experts” who figured Purdue would lose in the first round?

While we’re on the subject of disrespect, which conference was supposed to be the best in the country?  All season long we’ve heard about how the Big East is just leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of Division I basketball.  The funny thing about the tournament is that it points out when people are full of crap.  If you look at the teams in the Sweet 16, you’ll notice that there are three from the Big Ten, and only two from the Big East.  Even that pathetic conference called the Pac-10, which we were told was barely worthy to even play basketball at all, has a team in the Sweet 16 (and an 11 seed at that!).  So really, to all the experts out there (who will never read this), I cordially invite you to shut the hell up.

It’s also worth noting that the state of Indiana has two teams represented in the Sweet 16: Butler and Purdue.  Both teams survived close games in the second round, but either or both of them could find themselves in the Elite 8.  Considering how much basketball means to the state of Indiana, that is only fitting.  Although I have a bit of a personal dislike for one of the Butler players, I’d be happy to see them keep progressing through the tournament, and I hope my Boilermakers do as well.  All I know is that the moment Robbie Hummel’s ACL gave way, most of the country was done with Purdue.  But not me, not the other loyal fans, not the coaches, and certainly not the players.  Boiler up, and beat Duke on Friday!

All is not lost for Purdue

Anyone who pays even the least bit of attention to college basketball has heard about the total blowout that happened in Indianapolis on Saturday. Minnesota earned their way into the NCAA tournament with a 27-point dismantling of Purdue.  With the loss, Purdue dropped to 0-2 against NCAA-bound opponents since Robbie Hummel’s season-ending ACL injury.  There’s a lot to be disappointed about for Purdue fans.  11 first-half points, 14% from beyond the arc, 44% free-throw shooting, being out-rebounded by 25, Lewis Jackson and E’Twaun Moore getting injured.

But not is all lost.  My good friends at Boiled Sports have summed the game up pretty well, but their tone is unsurprisingly deflated.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t crushed after watching the game, but there’s no need to give up yet.  This season isn’t quite what we’d hope it would be. A Final Four run seems nearly impossible, but there’s still a Big Ten title to hang in Mackey.  And who knows what the NCAA tournament will bring?  There’s a reason March is the best month.

For Purdue fans, Saturday’s game does have some positives to take away.  Most notably, the contributions of two key freshmen.  The oft-maligned Patrick Bade has spent most of the year being a liability, but he has stepped up since Hummel’s injury.  At 6’8″, Bade helps fill the gap between JaJuan Johnson and the rest of the team.  In the last five games, Bade has played an average of 9 minutes. Those minutes include 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds. Those aren’t great numbers, but he’s turning into a solid basketball player, and that’s important for the Boilermakers right now.  Bade still picks up a foul every 5 minutes or so, but his fouls have become fouls of effort, not of clumsiness.  If Patrick Bade continues to improve, Purdue’s chances for success increase dramatically, not only this year, but next.

D.J. Byrd has also received some scorn in his freshman year.  The Mister Basketball candidate had a lot of expectations  and has been fairly underwhelming through most of the schedule.  At 6’5″ and 214 pounds, Byrd could also find a spot on the football team’s depleted secondary, and some of his fouls have resembled tackles. On Saturday, though, Byrd provided what was closest to passing for a spark.  Making his first three-pointers since December 22 (ending a streak of about 13 misses), D.J. Byrd provided nearly a quarter of Purdue’s points against Minnesota.  That was Byrd’s first double-digit scoring since the season opener. For a team that has been relying on Johnson and Moore for most of the points, Byrd’s off-the-bench contributions will be very welcome, and even necessary.

On Friday afternoon, Purdue takes on the Siena Saints in Spokane, Washington. Siena has a losing record against the Big Ten, but includes a first-round upset of Ohio State in last year’s tournament.  Purdue has won its last 11 first-round NCAA tournament games, and has a good chance to extend the streak to 12. It will depend largely on the contribution from the bench, and on Johnson and Moore not having bad games. Even noted optimist and Purdue basketball expert Sara Yelich has said she “might [have] Purdue getting beat (sic) in the first round.”  By Friday evening, we’ll know, but Purdue fans still have reasons to be optimistic.

Big Ten tournament predictions

This afternoon, the 2010 Big Ten men’s basketball tournament tips off in Indianapolis.  This marks the beginning of the best five weekends of the year.

Game 1 Michigan vs Iowa – Without a doubt, Michigan has been the biggest disappointment in the conference this year.  The Wolverines beat top-seeded Ohio State at the beginning of January, and swept 6th-seeded Minnesota. Their other four conference wins came against the bottom three teams in the conference.  Iowa, meanwhile, has exceeded expectations by winning four conference games. Iowa has been playing hard, but they’ve got no answer for Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims.   Michigan by 11.

Game 2 Northwestern vs Indiana – After starting the season 10-2, it looked like Northwestern might make the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, but without Kevin Coble it has been a tough season for the Wildcats.  They closed the regular season with an overtime loss to an underwhelming Indiana squad. The Hoosiers have played most of the season without their best player as well, which has contributed to their 4-14 season. They’ve had trouble against Northwestern, but Indianapolis is practically a home game, and I think they’re ready to pull off an upset.  Indiana by 4.

Game 3 Minnesota vs Penn State – Penn State is a better team than their record suggests. The Nittany Lions closed the season by nearly upsetting Michigan State and Purdue.  Talor Battle receiving help from his teammates has been the difference in the late part of the season.  In fact, Penn State looked better against Purdue when Battle was on the bench being treated for leg cramps.  On the other end, Tubby Smith plays Minnesota deeper than any other team in the Big Ten, with every player on the roster getting at least 2 minutes per game, and no one in the thirties.  That kind of depth, along with the multiple threats that the Gophers pose, will spell the end of the season for the defending NIT champs.  Minnesota by 7.

Game 4 Ohio State vs Game 1 (Michigan) – Thad Matta’s strategy is the exact opposite of Tubby Smith, keeping the starters in for most of the game. The key to OSU having a successful tournament run will be the ability to keep that level of effort going.  And, of course, Evan Turner, who was out with a back injury when Michigan defeated the Buckeyes in January.  Ohio State is the hottest team in the conference right now, and with the best player in the country healthy, Michigan will miss the tournament again.  Ohio State by 10.

Game 5 Wisconsin vs Illinois – These two teams faced off on Sunday to close the season, with Wisconsin blowing out the Illini in Champaign.  The Illini have been two different teams this season, but the bad team lately, having closed the season 1-5.  In large part, the fortunes of Illinois follow the performance of Demitri McCamey.  Illinois is playing for a tournament appearance, and a win here would help reserve them a space.  However, the Badgers have been playing very well of late, excepting a loss to Minnesota.  Wisconsin by 8.

Game 6 Purdue vs Game 2 (Indiana) – The conventional wisdom is that it is very difficult to beat a team three times in one year, but most Purdue fans are looking forward to a potential re-rematch against an in-state rival that has looked really bad lately.  Without Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers need to re-prove themselves and a convincing win on Friday would do just that.  The Hoosiers ended the season by snapping their second 10-game losing streak of the year. People in Bloomington would love to see Tom Crean’s team win this game, but they’re at least another year out from that.  Purdue by 6.

Game 7 Michigan State vs Game 3 (Minnesota) – If the Gophers want to make it into the NCAA tournament, they need to win this game.  With wins against Wisconsin and Illinois in February, and a pair of close games against Michigan State, that doesn’t seem out of reach.  Michigan State has looked vulnerable in losses to Purdue and Ohio State and a near-loss to Penn State and will note the absence of Chris Allen.  If the Minnesota guards can contain Kalin Lucas, they’ll move on to the semifinals. Minnesota by 2.

Game 8 Game 4 (Ohio State) vs Game 5 (Wisconsin) – Both teams ended the season by dismantling Illinois and they’ve yet to face each other healthy. Wisconsin defeated a Turner-less OSU in Madison and then fell in Columbus when Jon Leuer had a broken wrist.  This is definitely the sexiest matchup of the tournament, and will be a good chance for Evan Turner or the Badgers to impress people.  Despite what the Big Ten media might think, Bo Ryan is the better coach and I think he’ll have his hot team a little hotter.  Wisconsin by 4.

Game 9 Game 6 (Purdue) vs Game 7 (Minnesota) – Losing Robbie Hummel in the first half of the game in Minneapolis nearly derailed Purdue, it was all the Boilers could do to stay in the game and manage a very close win. Minnesota still hopes to be invited to the big dance, and defeating two of the Big Ten co-champions on consecutive days would give their resume a nice boost.  By spreading the minutes around, Tubby Smith should ensure that his team is relatively well-rested, and the Gophers have a range of weapons.  However, Purdue can shut down any weapon that you can bring. If E’Twaun Moore has come out of his recent slump, the Boilers will have a chance to defend their tournament title.  Purdue by 6.

Game 10 Game 8 (Wisconsin) vs Game 9 (Purdue) – Purdue has had Wisconsin’s number in recent years, going 5-1 against them in regular season play the past three years.  If Purdue can manage to win the tournament, they can ensure they remain a high seed in the NCAA tournament and certain sportscasters will be told where to go.  Wisconsin won the first matchup this season even after losing Jon Leuer mid-game and nearly got the upset in West Lafayette on the back of Keaton Nankivil’s 25 points.  This may be the lowest-scoring game of the tournament, but Purdue will have a hard time containing the Badgers without the help of Robbie Hummel. Wisconsin by 7.

A tale of two Mackeys

It was the happiest of crowds, it was the saddest of crowds.  That’s how I’d describe the 14,123 fans who filled Purdue’s Mackey Arena on Sunday afternoon to watch the Boilermakers play host to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.  A win would have kept Purdue in sole possession of the Big Ten lead and an easy road to the first conference championship, but everything changed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night. Robbie Hummel’s torn ACL was big news in college basketball, so big that “Robbie Hummel” was a trending topic on Twitter for a while.

The national media gave up on Purdue very quickly. After Kansas and Kentucky both lost on Saturday, there wasn’t even mention of the fact that #3 Purdue might win against the 13th-ranked Spartans and would be the default choice for a #1 ranking. Loyal Boilermaker fans refused to be swayed by the lack of confidence displayed by writers and analysts across the country, though, and they showed up early to give their team encouragement.

Twenty minutes before tip-off, the seats were nearly full.  By the time the teams came out for the game, Mackey Arena was as loud an energetic as I’d ever heard it.  Two hours later, the fans were slowly shuffling out in disbelief.  A game that was winnable and would make a big statement turned into a seeming vindication of the doubters.

My good friends over at BoiledSports.com have already written about some of the numbers from yesterday’s game, so I won’t repeat the effort.  While it is obvious that Purdue could have benefited from Hummel’s presence, his absence wasn’t the difference maker.  It’s hard to blame E’Twaun Moore for his poor shooting, since Tom Izzo made sure he was always covered in a sea of green.  But you can blame Chris Kramer (never thought you’d hear me say that, eh?) for committing five turnovers.  You can blame JaJuan Johnson for spending most of the day away from the basket.  You can blame Kramer and Keaton Grant for not pulling the trigger on open threes. You can even blame Tom O’Neill, Curtis Shaw, and John Higgins for repeatedly missing MSU walks in the first half.

Still, there are positives to take away from the game.  Patrick Bade, while not very impressive on the box score, looked about as good as he had all season.  He looked like a basketball player today, albeit a young and confused one, and he’ll need to continue this in order to give Purdue a non-Johnson inside presence.  The defense as a whole played quite well, as evidenced by the low score.  Michigan State had more turnovers than made baskets, and that gives the offense a lot more breathing room.

Up next is the final home game of the year, against a comically bad Indiana team.  Anything less than a 20-point win on Wednesday should be disappointing to Purdue fans, especially given that it is Senior Night (maybe Mark Wohlford will even get to play).  After that, the season closes for Purdue at Penn State. The Nittany Lions have finally figured out how to win a few basketball games, and this one might not be as easy a win for the Boilers as some might expect.  Still, if Chris Kramer (and/or Lewis Jackson) can keep Talor Battle contained, there’s no reason Purdue shouldn’t end up 14-4.

This means that Purdue will likely end the season sharing the title with Ohio State and Michigan State.  Michigan State closes out the season with home games against Penn State and Michigan, and has no business losing either of those two contests.  Ohio State has only to host Illinois on Tuesday night.  Illinois has lost 3 of the last 4 games, but will be playing for an invitation to the NCAA tournament, so they should keep it close.

The fact remains that there’s still a lot of basketball to be played, and Purdue fans have a lot to be proud of.  In the tradition of “One Brick Higher“, expect to see 14,123 loud fans on Wednesday night.

NCAA tournament — week 2

As awesome as March Madness is, it is even more fun when you have a horse in the race.  For all the crap the Big Ten has had to put up with this year, it did pretty well this weekend.  The only major upset was (5)Illinois, and given the history of the 5-12 matchup, that’s almost expected.  (8)Ohio State’s 2OT loss to Siena wasn’t their best effort, but 9 beating 8 is generally not too uncommon.  (I’d like to pause here to point out that even though my blog post from last week picked tOSU, my bracket actually has Sienna making it to the second round.)  Overall, the Big Ten went 3-3 against higher seeded teams and 3-2 against lower-seeded teams.  Let’s put this another way:  10.9% of the field of 64 hailed from the Big 10.  In the second round and Sweet 16, the Big Ten represents 12.5% of the field.  Not exactly dominant, but certainly respectable.  Those who have been drinking the haterade can be silent now.

(2)Michigan State faces (3)Kansas.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this game, since I picked (14)NDSU to get the upset in the first round.  My bracket has (6)West Virginia getting the upset here, but (11)Dayton killed that for me.  (3)Kansas has done much better than expected, considering how much talent they lost last year.  The real question is will they be able to sustain their run?  On the other hand, I’ve never quite bought in to Michigan State.  They’re good, but I don’t think they’re Elite 8 good.  Kansas will carry on, my wayward son.

(5)Purdue has made a habit of getting out to an early lead only to let off the gas (offensively, at least) in the second half.  This game will come down to Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson vs (1)Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet.  Thabeet has a 5-inch advantage on Johnson, and will keep the Boilermakers from getting too many rebounds, but Johnson’s 15-foot jump shot will prove tough to defend (it will also open up Robbie Hummel to get a few offensive boards).  If Purdue can avoid the second-half slumpsies, I say there are even odds.  Past performance dictates there’s a 70% chance UConn will be 1337.