Purdue spends much of its time flying under the radar. In a state that prides itself on being a basketball hotbed, it seems the Boilermakers still get left behind.
Even as the team heads to its first Sweet 16 in seven years — the farthest any Purdue team has gone under head coach Matt Painter — the Boilermakers have remained fairly distant from the spotlight. The recent firing of Tom Crean at Indiana has pushed the spotlight even further toward the state’s other Big Ten team, something the heated rivals either love or hate, depending on which side they’re on.
But the Boilermakers have a chance to make history this week. A win over the Kansas Jayhawks would push Purdue to its best NCAA Tournament run since 2000. Not only that, but a win over the top-seeded Jayhawks would shine the spotlight all over a program that has been chasing the credibility of its Indiana brethren — IU, Butler and Notre Dame — for the past decade.
None of that is to discredit Purdue.
The Boilers controlled the Big Ten all season and earned their first conference title since 2010. Caleb Swanigan is the best player to come through West Lafayette since arguably a fella by the name of Glenn Robinson and has a shot to become the National Player of the Year.
Ironically, the only person standing in Swanigan’s way for that honor will try to scoop finger-rolls around the big man this weekend.
Frank Mason III is a senior point guard for the Jayhawks and frontrunner for the Naismith Award. He also leads the nation’s best back court, along with Devonte Graham and NBA lottery pick Josh Jackson, among others. Mason has been Kansas’ killer all season, but Jackson mesmerized fans and scouts alike in the opening weekend of the tournament.
Jackson averaged 20 points in the first two Tournament games on 62 percent shooting, and his draft stack could be rising even higher because of it.
The point is, Purdue plays the opposite of Kansas, utilizing Swanigan’s post presence to control the tempo. The Boilers have yet to see a combination of guards like that of the Jayhawks.
A win over Kansas will be all the proof anyone needs to understand that Purdue is the real deal. If the Boilermakers can overcame the back-court mismatch, especially behind the play of Swanigan, there won’t be many question marks left on Purdue’s resume.
It’s a tall order, for sure, but it would leave no doubt as to how elite Painter’s squad is this season.
As a welcomed consequence, it could mean an even longer run for the Boilermakers, in what could quickly become the best season in the school’s history.
Purdue made back-to-back Sweet 16 runs in 2009 and 2010 behind what many consider Painter’s best recruiting class with future NBA players JaJuan Johnson and E’Twuan Moore. Simply put, the Boilermakers were a Robbie Hummel injury away from inflicting tons of damage on the NCAA Tournament.
But Purdue hasn’t since tasted that kind of tournament success or potential, and its last four seasons have ended in two missed tournament appearances and two first-round exits. Painter spent some time on the hot seat, and, now, in his 12th season in West Lafayette, he could lead the team to a place beloved Gene Keady only went twice in 25 tries.
A win over Kansas would easily be the Painter’s biggest win at Purdue and one of the program’s top wins in school history. Kansas has hovered around the top-5 in the country all season and played like the best team in the nation over the weekend.
The Jayhawks are a March powerhouse with 14 trips to the Final Four and three NCAA titles, the most recent in 2008.
Those numbers for Purdue? Two Final Four trips (1969, 1980) and zero titles. Kansas has won more tournament games (100) than Purdue has played in (63).
Purdue is 1-2 against Kansas in the tournament, the most recent a loss in 2012. The Boilermaker’s only win over the Jayhawks came during Purdue’s 1994 Elite 8 run — the Boilers were the 1-seed, Kansas the 4.
Since then, though, Kansas has added to its already-impressive tournament resume. Purdue has teetered on the “not quite” line for most of that time and tried to simply sneak out of the Indiana shadows.
But a trip to the Elite Eight puts Purdue square in the Indiana basketball spotlight. Getting through the Kansas Jayhawks in the process puts the Boilermakers in the national spotlight.
It doesn’t get much more elite than that.