Purdue is guaranteed to be at least one of the Big Ten’s outright champions, despite giving up a season sweep to Indiana the day before.
Had the Boilers (24-5, 13-5 Big Ten) come out on top Saturday night, and Illinois and Northwestern still lost on Sunday, Purdue would’ve already been crowned the sole champion, and its achievement might not have tasted so bittersweet for fans.
If any of the three remaining 11-7 teams (Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland) win their last two games and the Boilermakers manage to drop theirs, those teams will find themselves sharing the title with 13-7 records.
Luckily for Purdue, tiebreaking procedures don’t consider the outcomes of head-to-head games, or else Northwestern and Indiana could’ve kicked the gold and black out of the running completely, given three of the Boilers’ five losses were handed out by those two.
The fourth loss was served up by Maryland, which Purdue managed to scrape past at home by a single possesion on Jan. 27. When the final buzzer sounded during the Feb. 16 matchup, the Terrapins were on top by 14-points, resulting in the third court storming in three straight road trips, beginning with the first IU encounter.
That loss in Assembly Hall was of little concern for head coach Matt Painter and the then-No. 1 team in college basketball.
The Boilers’ coach identified too many turnovers and not making free throws as the standout factors after the Feb. 4 loss.
Purdue then handled Iowa at home before turning around and losing to Northwestern. Painter cited many of the same issues after that loss, namely the turnovers, but also suggested some second-half officiating may have played a role.
The next game went on the road and also ended in a loss. The Boilers were out-rebounded for just the third time this year and went 2-for-13 from beyond the arc against Maryland, matching the exact same 3-point accuracy of the previous matchup between the two.
Although Purdue’s losses are few in number and were all generally close contests, all but one have come in February. Teams are in the final stretch of the regular season with the two big tournaments looming a few weeks away.
Painter has preached the importance of his team “staying process-based” since the start of the season. Anytime the Boilers put up less-than-desirable shooting figures, it was always the same message after the game: These guys can shoot. They’re taking the right shots, and eventually they’ll go in.
“I’m not in the business of recruiting bad basketball players,” he said after the Maryland loss. “We have skilled guys. I’m not gonna allow people to consistently shoot shots that they’ve never made before. (Fletcher Loyer) is a big time shooter. He’s gonna be a great player for us. He’s a great player right now.”
The freshman guard duo of Loyer and Braden Smith has been a staple of Purdue’s offense this season. They’ve forced teams to respect the perimeter on defense, and in turn, limit the amount of double and triple teams that Zach Edey deals with from night to night.
Painter said he’s been fielding questions from fans on his radio show since the non-conference season about the guards’ playing time when their shots aren’t falling. He leaves them in regardless because he “believes in them” and “believes they’re gonna make shots.”
After the first outing against IU, which featured Smith missing his only 3-point attempt amidst a 1-for-8 shooting effort from the field, Painter glanced down at the stat sheet and reminded the press conference of everything else the captain of the offense provides.
“(Smith) had one turnover, six assists and three steals. He just didn’t get going shooting tonight, but he’s a good player — we’re gonna keep him,” he said.
That does mean, to some degree, Purdue is willing to live and die by the 3-point shot. However that’s not to say the team hasn’t been successful when the shots don’t fall, it’s just usually a dogfight. The Boilers’ three worst outings from deep all ended with a win, granted a couple weren’t Big Ten opponents, and the next three on the list are their most recent losses.
After the IU game on Saturday, Edey said there wasn’t any aspect of the team’s playing style to pinpoint the losses on.
“This is a great group of guys I’m surrounded with,” Edey said, “and we’re just gonna figure it out.”
Painter’s words that night echoed Edey’s and were reminiscent of games past.
“Those guys can make shots, I’m not worried about that,” he said. “You get worried about it if that happens at the NCAA tournament because you gotta be able to make shots.
“But what do you do? Give a speech about it?”