Another win adds to Purdue's credibility
Boilermakers defeat West Virginia to close out nonconference play
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue has always felt old-school when it wins.
There's no reason that the Boilermakers can't get a top-rated recruiting class with players who are NBA-ready after a season to lead them toward a Big Ten title or a Final Four.
But that strategy just doesn't seem to fit here. Nope. Instead, the Purdue way under Gene Keady and now Matt Painter always seems to be about maturation, development and poise under pressure by upperclassmen.
The baby Boilers of two seasons ago were a surprise when they won 25 games, 15 in the Big Ten to finish second. But that team wasn't ready to be a national contender. Then-freshmen E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson, and even then-sophomores Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant were hardly ready to lead this squad to a deep run in the NCAAs.
They weren't a season ago, either, especially with a back injury to Hummel that slowed him down considerably.
But they are now.
Kansas can lure a one-and-done player like Xavier Henry and mix him in with seasoned upperclassmen. Texas can do the same. So can Syracuse. Kentucky under John Calipari can, of course, make a deep run with a few NBA-bound freshmen and a star veteran player in Patrick Patterson.
But Purdue has to make a run for the title the old-school way -- with a roster dominated by juniors and seniors who can be trusted to limit mistakes, know their roles and win games they're supposed to away from home and certainly here at Mackey Arena.
Friday's 77-62 dismantling of No. 6-ranked West Virginia was the latest example of Purdue's progress.
"You do the same amount of teaching, but you back off, you let them play,'' said Painter, whose Boilermakers concluded the nonconference 13-0 and will likely hold their No. 4 ranking for a while.
"They can play through mistakes,'' Painter said. "They're physically and mentally more mature and it shows on the court.''
The immaturity showed itself last season when Purdue wasn't ready to handle a tougher Duke team here or even Oklahoma in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
"Teams that talk about toughness aren't tough,'' Painter said. "That Duke game made us learn a hard lesson. There's no question that our experience has definitely helped us against Tennessee [a one-point win on Nov. 23 in the final of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands], against West Virginia, in being down at Alabama and at Iowa. Our guys don't panic, and before there was a sense of panic.''
The poking and prodding of the Boilermakers' defense frustrated West Virginia. Mountaineers senior forward Da'Sean Butler said the team couldn't run its offense at all. West Virginia had 18 turnovers; Purdue had seven. Purdue was efficient by shooting 50 percent and got to the free throw line to make 17 of 23 attempts.
"We have a lot of guys who think they're better than what they are,'' said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose Mountaineers escaped with an overtime win at Seton Hall on Dec. 26 and then Tuesday beat Marquette on a final-possession Butler shot. "[Purdue] knows what they want to do. They do a great job of filling their roles. Kramer isn't out there taking 3s or doing 6-foot fakes to get his shot. He knows what he wants to do.''
Huggins said coaching a team like Painter's means one can make adjustments. Huggins can't do so when he's relying on more inexperienced players.
"They were better equipped to handle this game than we were,'' Huggins said.
A lot of that comes down to trust. Huggins went big early, then went small quickly and kept trying different combinations. Johnson exploited whatever options he was given by scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 boards in taking advantage of the mismatches.
The trust Painter can have with this Purdue team allows the Boilermakers freedom, and they don't abuse the privilege.
"We're a lot smarter,'' Moore said. "We know when to attack and when not to.''
Hummel said that a season ago, the Boilermakers thought their success as freshmen was going to naturally carry over to their sophomore season. Purdue did get to the Sweet 16, but went 11-7 in the Big Ten and didn't have a signature nonconference win outside of beating a then-struggling Boston College team in New York in November.
"This year, this shows that we are ready to hang with the top teams,'' Hummel said.
But Painter said this win needs to be kept in perspective. It was a convincing home-court win. Purdue has played one true road game -- at Alabama, a team that won't be in the NCAA tournament. Conversely, Michigan State went to North Carolina in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and played at Texas. Purdue hasn't matched that road slate. The Spartans and Boilermakers will play twice and Purdue still has to go to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota -- all expectedly tough road stops.
Huggins should get credit for even scheduling this home-and-home series since, as Painter said, few elite teams are willing to come to Mackey Arena. The Duke and Wake Forest home games the past two seasons were part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and scheduled by the conference office. Huggins and Painter said the two-year series will be extended to four years.
Huggins asked why shouldn't teams play games like Friday's.
"What are they going to do? I've already been fired,'' Huggins said. "How are you going to get better if you don't challenge yourself?"
Kansas, Texas, Syracuse and Kentucky have all separated themselves as Final Four contenders. Painter isn't ready to put the Boilermakers in a No. 1-ranking category just yet until they can prove they're consistent on the road in the Big Ten. But it's clear the goal of being a top seed and getting a "home-court" advantage in Lucas Oil Stadium at the Final Four in Indianapolis is the end game.
And so far it's hard to argue against Purdue being in the thick of that chase.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.