Here's why Purdue is a legit contender to win the NCAA Tournament title
MINNEAPOLIS – It’s time – past time, actually – that we look at the Purdue Boilermakers and realize something that we should have realized coming into the season: Purdue isn’t just a team that will push Michigan State at the top of the Big Ten. This could be the best team of Matt Painter’s impressive career, a team that we need to start talking about as a team that should be considered the Big Ten favorite – and should also be considered a contender for the national title.
I know it can be easy to become a prisoner of the moment in college basketball. And Purdue’s 81-47 win at Minnesota on Saturday – its fourth true road win of the season, with the other three being over teams ranked 43rd or better on KenPom – wasn’t really a moment at all. It was a beatdown of a Minnesota team that’s struggling mightily after losing two starters: Amir Coffey to a shoulder injury, Reggie Lynch to suspension in the face of multiple sexual assault allegations. Purdue came to The Barn and whipped them by 34 points and dominated the game in every aspect, from elite 3-point shooting to excellent rebounding to well-honed ball movement.
But it’s not because of the resounding win that makes Purdue a legitimate national-title contender. Nor is it because Purdue (17-2, 6-0 Big Ten) is on a 13-game winning streak, and hasn’t lost since Thanksgiving Day at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Nor is it because the advanced statistics say Purdue is a damn good team (No. 2 on KenPom after Saturday win), and the human polls do too (No. 5 in the latest AP Poll, and likely a tick higher come Monday).
It’s because, when you look at the makeup of this team, it’s an exceedingly rare composition for an elite college basketball team in this one-and-done era.
Purdue may be both the most complete team in college basketball as well as one of the most experienced in terms of playing together.
Four of Purdue’s top five players in minutes – Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson, Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards – are all seniors. And not just seniors who happen to be in their fourth or fifth year of college basketball; these are seniors who have played all of their college careers together. The fifth player in that group of top minute-getters is sophomore Carsen Edwards, a bulldog of a guard who is the type of natural leader where age doesn’t particularly matter. Plus, as Painter pointed out when I asked him on Saturday, you could argue that, with his big-time freshman minutes plus his summer experience with USA Basketball’s Under-19 team, Carsen Edwards may be the most experienced sophomore in the country.
“You don’t see a lot of experience (in high-major college basketball),” Painter said. “You see more experience with four seniors at a little bit of a lower level. That’s the reason when you get in the tournament and you talk about the upsets, the mid-major upsets, and that’s teams with more juniors and seniors. You don’t see as many senior-laden teams, especially guys that are seniors that have been with you for four years. There’s such an influx of transfers and fifth-year guys that you might have some of that, but you don’t have guys that have been in the program that long and played the whole time. All four of our seniors are guys that have played.”
It was clear coming into the season that Purdue was experienced. Their roster ranks 60th in the nation in experience on KenPom.com; only Northwestern has more experience in the Big Ten. What surprised Painter about this team, though, has come from a freshman: Matt Haarms, one of Purdue’s two seven-footers, has given Purdue a big-time shot-blocking presence (currently ninth in the nation in block percentage), which is something they didn’t have last year after AJ Hammons graduated.
It’s really, really tough to find a glaring weakness on this team. I asked Painter to name one. Consider these to be small quibbles, not actual full-fledged weaknesses.
“Our weakness is probably from a rebounding standpoint – we’re not consistent,” Painter said. “We did a good job tonight. We didn’t do a good job against Michigan. The game before that we did a really good job. We don’t stay consistent in that area. The other thing, we’ll get a little trigger-happy, especially on the road. You saw that in the start of this game. We settled down. But we took too many contested threes early in the shot clock. There’s nothing wrong with taking open threes early in the shot clock. You just can’t take a bunch of contested ones.”
I was in the Bahamas when Purdue dropped two straight, and Painter’s overall quibbles were what was wrong with the team in those losses. They got handled on the boards by what turned out to be a really good Tennessee team. And they shot 29.6 percent from 3-point range in the loss to Western Kentucky, jacking up 27 3-pointers – nearly half of their total field-goal attempts.
Overall, though? Pretty minor flaws. Purdue is still a competent rebounding team. And they generally don’t take an excessive number of 3-pointers; 40 percent of their field-goal attempts are from behind the arc, which ranks only 103rd in the nation. Maybe it would behoove them to take even more 3-pointers, since as a team they shoot 41.5 percent from 3-point range, which ranks in the top 10 nationally.
All of this brings me to my last point: Why aren’t more people talking about Purdue as a national title threat? Maybe this is something that’s slowly changing. They somewhat fell off the radar after two surprising Thanksgiving week losses, but people tend to notice 13-game winning streaks. Or maybe that’s just life as a Purdue Boilermaker, a life that, for whatever reason, tends to fly below the national radar.
“They’re one of the better teams in the country,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They coach themselves. Matt’s a terrific coach, but you can tell they’re coaching each other. They’re really, really good.”
A lot can change between now and March. But if you’re looking at the landscape of college basketball right now, and you’re trying to figure out which teams in the country are best positioned to win it all with a combination of experience, talent, depth and balance, there aren’t many teams who check all those boxes. One is certainly Villanova, my preseason pick to win it all and currently the No. 1 team in the nation. Another may be Wichita State.
But if you haven’t been including Purdue in that list, it’s well past time to reconsider.