We’ve been on a recent run of long-suffering fan bases finally getting their due—see recent championships for the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Astros. If you’re looking for that trend to continue in March Madness there’s no better blend of past suffering and current potential than the Purdue Boilermakers.
Purdue’s program has been the model of consistency in the 42 years since the fall of the UCLA Dynasty ushered in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament. The Boilermakers have been to the Dance 28 times. They’ve won or shared nine Big Ten titles. That includes a historic run of 1994-96 when they won three straight outright, one of only two times that’s happened in the history of the league. And two of those shares came with eventual national champions, 1979 Michigan State and 1987 Indiana.
But there’s never been a national championship. Not in the modern era and not ever. In fact, there’s only been one Final Four appearance. The month of March has induced heartbreak for Boiler Nation and the events of last week are enough to make one wonder if this year’s Purdue team is warming up for more of the same—with control of the Big Ten race in their grasp, they coughed up leads and lost on buzzer-beaters to Ohio State and Michigan State.
The Boilermakers now need help to win the Big Ten race, where they trail Ohio State by a game and are tied with Michigan State. But the remaining schedule is easy—Wisconsin, Penn State, Illinois and Minnesota. Even with the losses, Purdue is still projected as a 1-seed for the NCAA Tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. And perhaps more to the point—even in Big Ten Country, where people still care about regular season championships, there’s no fan base this side of the Washington Capitals for whom a conference title can mean less and springtime success would mean more.
Purdue has everything necessary to succeed in March. They play at a deliberate pace and will benefit from the slower, more physical style of play that tends to happen in tournament games. They play defense, ranking 14th in the country in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts for the slower tempo). They rank third in offensive efficiency and they can beat you from anywhere on the floor.
The Boilermakers do what any team in today’s game must do and that’s shoot the three-ball. Four players take at least three treys per game and all four hit 40 percent or higher. The best of the four is Vince Edwards, who averages 15 points/8 rebounds per night. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich calls him the best player in the conference. I wouldn’t go that far–clearly Ohio State’s Keita-Bates Diop should be Big Ten MVP. But the praise does underscore how complete a player Edwards is.
If the outside shooting should falter on some random night—as it usually does for most teams at some point in a March run–Purdue is one of the few teams in college basketball that can do it the old-fashioned way with a big man who plays with his back to the basket. Isaac Haas goes 7’2” and averages 15 points per game and even in the team’s recent losses, his post moves looked unstoppable.
So you’ve got a balanced team that can spread the floor, has a clear go-to player in Edwards and a clear choice for easy points with Haas. What’s not to like? Not much, but the resume does provide one red flag. It’s in the resume. With the losses to Ohio State and Michigan State joining a November defeat to Tennessee, Purdue has gone 1-3 against the best four teams they’ve played. A win over Arizona is the one exception and the Wildcats are still the weakest of that group.
It’s not that the Boilermakers don’t have some quality wins—they’ve beaten Louisville and Nebraska, along with winning two outstanding games over Michigan. But the record against their fellow elite teams, combined with their history, is probably why Las Vegas is still modestly skeptical. Purdue’s 10-1 odds to cut down the nets in San Antonio and place them behind Michigan State, along with Duke, who’s had more than their share of recent struggles.
But I’ll step up and say it now—Purdue is my pick to win the national championship. The program’s one Final Four appearance of the modern era came in 1980. That’s the same the year the Astros and Eagles knocked on the door and came up short. The Boilermakers continue the trend of the Revenge of 1980 and bring it home.