BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — First, let’s do a little time travel.
It’s Dec. 22, and Purdue is a mess. The Boilermakers have just lost to Gardner-Webb 89-84, two days after they had been blown away by Notre Dame 94-63, and two weeks after they had been upset by North Florida. The Purdue record is 8-5, and the defense is leaking like a bad roof.
Guard Bryson Scott sits before the media and shakes his head. “We’ve got to pull it together somehow, we’ve got to find it in ourselves.” This is only nine months after the Boilermakers finished last in the Big Ten, so who thinks they will pull it together? Who thinks they even can?
Now return to the present. Purdue has just grabbed its seventh victory in eight games, out-gritting Indiana to the finish line 67-63 sweeping the Hoosiers this season by winning in Assembly Hall, where it had gone 9-31 in all recorded time. The 18-9 Boilermakers are no longer talking about a crisis, but rather their chance of getting to the NCAA tournament.
|PURDUE 67, INDIANA 63|
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And that’s getting better every day.
A.J. Hammons, who destroyed Indiana inside with 20 post points, is talking about getting over his mercurial days, when his focus would fade in and out.
“The guys are holding me accountable now for everything I do.”
Guard Jon Octeus is explaining what has happened to Purdue.
“The signs of a growing team.”
Guard Rapheal Davis, with an 11 point, 10 rebound double-double against the Hoosiers, part of a 38-21 Purdue rebound crunching of Indiana, is mentioning cohesion and what Thursday means.
“It’s a family now, not just a team. We’ve been through so much … we could have either all went separate ways or come together. We came together.
“I’ve been telling our guys since the first time we played them, that this game is bigger than us, this game’s bigger than our team. This is for our university.”
He goes on say this is for the Purdue president, the athletic director, alumni, past players. He sounds like someone accepting an Oscar.
He also recalls the infamous losses to North Florida and Gardner-Webb, at home, and how much this team wishes it could get those games back.
“But it’s over with. It was over months ago. We know we slipped up. We know we shouldn’t have let those games slide from us, but we’re moving on now.”
And, finally, coach Matt Painter is discussing the question about whether this late surge in general, and this game in particular, has the Boilermakers in the NCAA bracket.
“I feel like you’re in if you could lose every game from here on out, and they would still put you in. If we did that, we wouldn’t be in.
“We still have work to do. I believe that.”
With an RPI in the high 50s, he’s probably right. But who could have imagined Purdue this close last December? Back then, the Boilermakers gave up an average of 88 points in consecutive losses to Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and Gardner-Webb. Now, their last eight opponents have averaged 59.8.
It was Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell who said, “At the end of the day, our fight didn’t match theirs.”
Ask Painter what has changed, and he mentions deciding to shorten his bench after December’s dark days, to keep his best defenders on the court. “I was trying to get depth. It hurt us. It’s my fault.”
He also relates what he told his team in a heart-to-heart over the holidays. “Be more demanding of yourself. You have more to give. You have to defend and take pride and have that pin-point responsibility of guarding your man and doing what you’re supposed to do.
“And I just thought guys weren’t giving that.”
He listed a big reason for the comeback as a locker room with the right stuff.
“I’ve always felt like our effort was there. I felt like everybody was pulling the rope in the same direction, whereas I was always fighting people the last couple of years.”
All that has helped. So has the emergence of Hammons as a true and consistent force in the middle on both ends, rather than the 7-foot enigma of the past. That upgrade is something his teammates have deeply appreciated.
“He’s a grown man,” Davis said. “Now he’s about his game. He doesn’t talk about it much, he’s just about action right now.”
Hammons also now has 7-foot-2 freshman Isaac Haas backing him up. One of these days, Painter might use them at the same time.
The state of Indiana, whose beating heart is a basketball, did not have one team involved in the NCAA tournament in 2014. That sight is nearly as rare as Halley’s Comet. But with Notre Dame, Butler, Purdue, Indiana and Horizon League leader Valparaiso, the state could land five invites this time.
Purdue’s 203rd meeting with Indiana might end up a turning point for the Boilermakers, as the marquee road victory they’ve needed.
“You’re on the bubble, you’re fighting for a win, it’s a road game, it’s your rival, they’re really good,” Painter said. “Not too many people are going to win here.”
But it’s not enough. Not quite yet. Davis understands there is only one answer to any lingering questions about his rejuvenated team.
“Don’t stop winning.”