Purdue is playing like an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, with Selection Sunday just one week away. But the Boilermakers’ résumé is far from good enough. This is a reality they’ve accepted.
“We just dug ourselves a hole that’s too big,” said head coach Matt Painter.
The lowlights of Purdue’s campaign include a season-opening loss to Bucknell and a defeat handed by Eastern Michigan in which the Boilermakers scored 44 points—those among many other bad losses. Purdue finishes its regular season with a record of 15-16 and 8-10 in conference.
While the early-season woes illustrate what immaturity the young Boilermakers showed, the eight wins in the nation’s top conference demonstrate what strides they made. The final week of Purdue’s regular season included a road upset of No. 17 Wisconsin, a near-upset of No. 7 Michigan, and a thrashing of weary Minnesota.
“I wish we could’ve figured this out a long time ago,” guard Dru Anthrop said after the win on Sunday. “But the end of the season is when you want to be moving in the right direction. I think we are.”
The Boilermakers have momentum as they travel to Chicago for the Big Ten Tournament. They open as the No. 7 seed, matching up with Nebraska in the first round. Purdue’s only chance of punching a ticket to the Big Dance is by winning the conference championship.
“Our guys understand that for us to play in the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to have to win four straight games in Chicago,” Painter said. “There’s no getting around that. But that’s nobody else’s fault; we’ve had our opportunities.”
The odds are stacked up against Purdue. If it wins over the 10th-seeded Cornhuskers, a second-round matchup with the No. 2 seed (still to be determined) would be next. After that, two more tough tests would be waiting.
If Purdue indeed does miss out on the NCAA Tournament, that doesn’t mean its season is over. The National Invitation Tournament or College Basketball Invitational both remain possibilities for the Boilermakers, and their head coach hopes for such an opportunity.
“It’s the whole body of work,” Painter said. “I think we deserve some sort of postseason.”
Just as the season is coming to a close, the Boilermakers are playing their best basketball. While the NIT or CBI lack the prestige of the NCAA Tournament, it offers the chance for a reward. Purdue feels confident it can make a run in either bracket.
“Just playing basketball, no matter what happens, we’re going to continue to play like we have in the last couple weeks,” said guard D.J. Byrd.
Purdue feels it’s poised for a run in the Big Ten Tournament—though the odds are against it. If the Boilers are bounced from Chicago, they’ll have to decide whether it’s worth playing in the postseason.
Speaking to the assembled media, after an emotional Senior Day ceremony, Dru Anthrop had already made up his mind.
“If my two choices are to keep playing or be done, I would definitely keep playing,” he said. “Every time I can throw on a uniform and go out with these guys and play to try to get a win, I’m going to do it”.