Why not? After a comeback to remember against a NCAA tourney-caliber opponent, the No. 15 Boilers (9-2) are positioned for the kind of run they haven’t seen in a generation.
Yes, this means the NCAA tourney. Sure, thriving in the Big Ten (as in winning it) is a major goal, so there’s a lot to navigate in the next two and a half months, but in this era, March Madness rules.
First, you have to show you ruling-caliber team.
For one day at least, mission accomplished.
You’d better believe rallying for an 86-81 win over No. 21 Notre Dame (9-2), an Elite Eight team each of the past two seasons, radiates break-through potential. The last time the Boilers had beaten the Irish was in 1965. The fact it required a comeback from a 17-point deficit, Purdue’s largest ever against a ranked opponent, only added to the significance.
“This is huge for us,” coach Matt Painter said, “but also the way we won it, the ability to come back against a team like Notre Dame that doesn’t beat themselves, that you know will be really good in the ACC and go back to the NCAA Tournament. It’s a huge confidence boost for us.”
A lot has been made of Purdue’s potential. It has size, experience and the best shooting of the decade-long Painter era. But it didn’t have a signature victory, although it came close against Villanova and Louisville.
It also faced the burden of an 0-5 Crossroads Classic record. It was time for a change, and, boy, did the Boilers deliver on Saturday at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
They needed to show they could thrive amid postseason-like atmosphere and intensity, and they did. They used toughness, versatility and crunch-time defense to finally break the offense-minded Irish.
“It means everything to us,” forward Caleb Swanigan said, “because going into conference season, without this we win, we have no resume, so you have to earn it in the grind of the Big Ten, which is long and hard. You want to have the non-conference to back you when it comes to tournament time.”
Purdue had to go small to do it, which meant playing 7-2 center Isaac Haas just two second-half minutes. Swanigan became the center, Vince Edwards the power forward and then a three-guard approach.
P.J. Thompson, Dakota Mathias and Carsen Edwards were the backcourt mainstays, with Ryan Cline providing 18 minutes of help.
“It shows our versatility, being able to match up with a smaller team and play small ball or play with two bigs on the court,” Swanigan said.
It really helps when Swanigan is one of those bigs. He had 26 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high four blocks against Notre Dame. It was his eighth double-double of the season and the 16th of his career.
As for those blocks, Swanigan said, “In the second half, it was time to win the game. I told Vince, ‘If you play solid defense and don’t foul, I’ll come block for you, and that’s what I did.”
Swanigan looms as a Big Ten MVP candidate. He leads the conference in rebounding, at 11.1. His 16.8 scoring average ranks among the league leaders, as does his 59.3-percent shooting average. He’s also 9-for-14 on three-pointers.
Still, for the Boilers to achieve elite-team status, they have to fix their No. 1 problem — turnovers.
They’re off to a good start after totaling just nine against Notre Dame, six below their average. Now, Painter said, they need a run of games like that.
“We’re capable of doing that, but after you play 10 games and average 15 turnovers, you wonder at times if you can play with a quality opponent.
“For us, it’s not the opponent, it’s the unforced errors. It’s the little things, like traveling, like getting three seconds (in the lane), like getting offensive fouls.
“It’s a good sign that we did that, but can we consistently do it? As a coach, I feel we can, but we haven’t shown it. I think that’s going to be the tell-tale for us, especially going on the road in the Big Ten.”
It’s a tale screaming for a happy ending, and with Monday’s home game against Western Illinois (3-7) as the next chapter, its going to get bigger.
And yes, that absolutely can mean better.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at email@example.com.
UP NEXT: Western Illinois at Purdue
Tipoff: 6 p.m., Monday
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