Coming into the 2014-15 season few people were high on the Boilermakers, with a number of media publications pinning them at 13th and only a few people even putting them above 12th place. And while it's early into the season and hard to speculate how the Big Ten season will pan out (remember when Michigan lost to Charlotte last year?), I'm not sure few people expected Purdue to be 6-1 and looking as good as they have.
Of course it's the non-conference slate and power five teams typically have nice records throughout the first month or two, with Purdue starting off 5-1 last season as well. Of course that two month start to the season included a single point come-from-behind victory over lowly Northern Kentucky, a four point win over Rider, five point escape versus Eastern Michigan and two wins by a combined 13 points over a Siena team that had 18 losses. Let us not forget a blowout loss at the hands of a 10-21 Washington State team that outscored the Boilermakers by 25 points in the second half. Marquee wins? Well we beat a West Virginia team that finished one game over .500 by one possession.
So excuse me if I start to feel an increased amount of optimism throughout the first few weeks of the season. Already the Boilermakers have a win this season (North Carolina State) that was likely better than any win last season, especially when you realize last year's home win against Nebraska came when the Huskers were sitting at 8-7 coming into the game. Not only is there a solid resume boosting win versus North Carolina State, but that came immediately following a neutral site win over a BYU team that will likely make their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in nine seasons (winning 20 or more games every year since 2003 besides one season) and a blowout victory over SEC opponent Missouri.
While I'm slowly trying to veer away from a potential Purdue bandwagon, if the team can keep it up or at least avoid a massive letdown over the rest of December, the team should be in pretty solid position entering Big Ten play. The Boilermakers will have six non-conference games over the next three weeks and as long as they take care of business, this could be one of the team's best early season starts in awhile.
But for now let's take a look at what's coming up for the Boilermakers.
Next Three Games: North Florida (12/6, 196th Kenpom), IPFW (12/8, 191st Kenpom), Arkansas State (12/10, 250th Kenpom)
The most interesting thing about this stretch is that the Boilers will be playing three games in five days, which is a pretty busy schedule. None of these teams are particularly good, with IPFW being a decent Summit League team and that's about it. The reality is these are three home games where if Purdue remains focused they should all be winnable outings, putting Purdue in position to be 9-1 when they travel to Vanderbilt on the 13th.
The Tough(er) Ones: at Vanderbilt (12/13, 82nd Kenpom), Notre Dame (12/20, 41st Kenpom)
This is where things get a bit more interesting for the Boilermakers. On paper the Vanderbilt game would appear to be another winnable affair, with the team coming from a so-so SEC and coming off of back to back losing seasons under Kevin Stallings. And for what it's worth, the Commodores also lost at a neutral site against presumed Big Ten bottom dweller Rutgers at the end of November. This game kind of seems similar to the West Virginia series, with Purdue facing a marquee program name coming off of a few poor seasons after a handful of NCAA Tournament appearances. The reality is Vanderbilt might not push the envelope as a good win, but it's also a more recognized program and would at least help with the eye test.
That then leaves us with Notre Dame, who missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. Already this year the Irish have lost to Providence, but they should see a return to form, or at least that's the hope for the program after last year's disappointment. It should probably be noted that the Michigan State game tonight (or technically yesterday) should speak a bit about how good the Irish are, but this piece was written prior to said game.
The unfortunate reality is the Boilermakers have never won in the Crossroads Classic, losing to Butler twice by a combined eight points and dropping to Notre Dame in 2012. If Purdue can right the ship here it would be the cherry on top for an impressive start to the season and with the development of guys like Kendall Stephens and Rapheal Davis, combined with the arrivals of Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas and Jon Octeus, that is entirely possible.
Closing out the non-conference slate for Purdue will be Big South opponent Gardner-Webb, a team that has lost by double digits to LSU, Seton Hall, Old Dominion and Arizona.
With that being said, it would be a disaster if Purdue didn't win their four games against North Florida, IPFW, Arkansas State and Gardner-Webb. That means worst case scenario is Purdue heads into conference play at 10-3. The more likely possibility is Purdue wins said games and splits the Vanderbilt and Notre Dame games, though one has to wonder if Purdue could roll along to a 12-1 start if they don't take any unforeseen steps back. Even at 11-2, though, that would put Purdue in considerably better position to make a run for the NCAA Tournament. With the conference as strong as it's been the last few years, and only getting better as a whole (even if there's less power up top outside of Wisconsin), that means an 8-10 mark in conference play would put Purdue at 19-20 wins (possibly more if they add a win in the Big Ten Tournament) and in shape to make what was once seen as insurmountable climb back to the postseason.
Of course let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, this is Purdue and consistency has been a massive issue the last few seasons. But for the first time in a couple years there's been enough positivity on the court to warrant the growing feelings of optimism from the fan base. A non-conference slate that once looked like it was setting Purdue up for meaningless wins and a handful of tough losses now could be the launchpad into relevancy for a Purdue squad that has so far surpassed even the biggest homers expectations.
If things continue as they are Purdue fans will have plenty to feel grateful for through the Holiday season this year.