Just before introducing the starting lineup in advance of home games at Mackey Arena, the Purdue athletic department runs an exhilarating hype video on the scoreboard that takes spectators on a mad rush through Boilermakers basketball history: John Wooden, Rick Mount, Joe Barry Carroll, the Three Amigos and the Baby Boilers.
There are Final Fours and Elite Eights and Big Ten championships weaved through this glorious short film. There is one thing missing, though: any mention at all of the time the Boilers earned the No. 1 ranking.
That’s because it’s never happened.
Does that matter?
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It will end Monday, when the voters in The Associated Press poll — unanimously, probably — vote the Boilermakers the No. 1 team in college basketball. It will be an historic occasion, but not terribly significant. Over the past five seasons, none of the teams ranked No. 1 in Week 5 of the college basketball season won the NCAA championship. Only one made the Final Four. Two lost in the tournament’s second round.
The goals at Purdue: win the Big Ten, reach the Final Four for the first time in four decades, try to claim the program’s first NCAA championship. Now, that would be truly historic.
“I think this has happened to a lot of people that have been ranked high early in the season — it doesn’t mean they end there,” coach Matt Painter told reporters after a home victory Friday night against Iowa in the Big Ten Conference opener for both. “Our goal is to end there, to be one of the better teams going into the NCAA Tournament and then to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament. But we know how tough that is.”
How can Purdue “end there”? What would lead to an earlier end? Let’s take a look.
Why Purdue can reach the Final Four
1. Size. As the 3-point revolution has proceeded, frontcourt power often has been overlooked as a factor in championship contention. Whether a team relies on its big men to score, which Purdue does, the ability to defend around the goal and to prevent offensive rebounds remain essential.
Reigning champion Baylor got only 6.4 points per game from center Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua, but he destroyed Gonzaga’s interior game with help from 6-10 Flo Thamba and 6-4, 250-pound “guard” Mark Vital. Virginia 2019 got 1.7 blocks per game from Mamadi Diakite. Villanova 2018 had Omari Spellman inside to grab eight rebounds and block 1.5 shots on average.
It only took about three minutes of the 2021 NCAA championship game to realize that Gonzaga was going to have all kinds of issues dealing with Baylor’s overwhelming might; on their offensive board, Baylor grabbed 48 percent of the available rebounds.
Purdue has two centers who could play for any team in the country: 7-4 Zach Edey, ringing up 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds in 19 minutes per game, and 6-10 Trevion Williams, who is good for 12.4 and 8.8 in his 19 minutes. After much offseason conversation about whether he could play them together, Painter has settled on rotating them. Each can play with only minimal concern about foul trouble or fatigue.
2. Jaden Ivey. A 6-4 wing from South Bend, Ind. — his mother is head coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team — Ivey was ranked only 89th in the 2020 recruiting class by 247 Sports. It’s OK, because Russell Westbrook was only considered a 3-star prospect as he arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2006.
And that’s the comparison one can’t help but make, because Ivey is among the most dynamic players in college basketball over the past 15 years. When he arrives in the NBA, presumably after this season, Ivey will instantly be among the elite of the elite in that category. That does not assure he will become a superstar; Andrew Wiggins has been good but not great. But the ability to change direction in an instant, to control his body in the air, to fly above the rim, to move laterally to prevent opposing ballhandlers from attacking the lane — all of these qualities are significant advantages at the Division I level.
He’s also significantly improved as a shooter, from 26 percent on 25 3-pointers in last season’s 23 games to 40 percent on 14 makes in just eight games of 2021-22.
He might be the best player in college basketball.
3. Perimeter shooting. This was my biggest concern about the Boilers entering the year. They ranked 181st in 3-point percentage and 120th in effective field goal percentage in 2020-21, according to KenPom.com. In an NCAA Tournament first-round upset loss to North Texas, players not named Ivey shot 5-of-18 from deep.
To date, these Boilers are No. 2 in 3-point shooting and No. 1 in effective field goal percentage. Senior Sasha Stefanovic — who was 1-of-3 in last season’s North Texas game after going 0-for-4 and failing to score in an overtime Big Ten Tournament loss to Ohio State — is 11-of-28 (39.3 percent) against major opponents this season.
4. Culture. Painter has many gifts as a coach, but one of the foremost has been the establishment — or is it really a continuation of what he learned and inherited from legend Gene Keady? — of a program-first operation that has accommodated and developed the diverse talents of such players as Chris Kramer, Carsen Edwards, E’Twaun Moore and Caleb Swanigan.
Painter builds his teams around his players’ talents, but commitment to the Boilers comes first. This group appears to be entirely bought in to that requirement.
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Why Purdue might not reach the Final Four
1. Depth. This is the deepest team in college basketball since Kentucky 2015, which sent nine players to the NBA and had no one average even 26 minutes a game. Depth is supposed to be a strength, right? Well, it is, but it’s a little like a cellphone.
Too much of a good thing, you know? There’s a reason some parents put a clock on their kids’ screen time.
When UK was winning its first 38 games in the 2014-15 season, the abundance of gifted players certainly was useful. But there also was pressure to play those performing best, and a talent such as Devin Booker, because his shooting slumped as the season advanced, wasn’t able to discover the impact he might make. Issues at point guard were disguised until UK needed someone to run key possessions late against Wisconsin in the Final Four, and Andrew Harrison stumbled.
Painter is playing 10 players at least 14 minutes. No one is getting more than 27. He is using several players in a platoon style similar to UK 2015, almost always pairing shooter Isaiah Thompson at the point with Edey and defensive ace Eric Hunter as point guard with Williams. Painter also is wise enough to mix Ivey into both groups. The more he’s on the floor, the better.
If you examine box scores from past Final Fours, you’ll find most championship teams are employing, in those biggest games, 7 1/2 players: seven getting double-figure minutes, one making a cameo so someone can rest or to mitigate foul trouble.
Ultimately, Painter might be forced to make a similar choice, although it’s unlikely he would cut his rotation that much. He’ll have big questions to face, though: Who is the point guard when it matters most? What group is best to close out tight games? Who is best suited to carry the Boilers back when they’re behind?
Painter might be the best coach in college basketball who has not yet reached the Final Four. He could discard that designation this season, but to succeed with an abundance of choices requires generally making the right ones.