Purdue in Glass Nikes Versus Duke?
Maybe at first glance, but not quite.
by Chris Deaton
I had a feeling I wasn’t the only one thinking this:
It dawned upon me like it surely did most others—no Robbie Hummel plus a cataclysmic fall in the Big Ten Tournament would surely equal defeat, and fast. But in a roundabout way, it took injury trouble to remind everyone why in 2008, when Team Toddler ran through their conference at 15-3, we were all so high on the Boilermakers’ future.
Those talents—Hummel, Kramer, Grant, Moore, (eventually) Johnson—man, they were gonna be something. Purdue had one of these “young nuclei,” not a lone star. Give them time to mesh and they would undoubtedly push toward a Final Four—probably in Naptown, no less.
And for months and months of this ’09-10 season, they won and won. A 1-seed was within grasp, and for all of this talk about the importance of experience, this team had the veteran skill and presence necessary to avoid the green mistakes so costly in March.
Losing Robbie Hummel altered the skill part—but not the presence.
Notice Chris Kramer’s emergence into something better than the Seth Davis-approved Elmer. He’s somewhat of a floor general now. JaJuan Johnson can play bigger than 215 pounds—he dropped 23 and grabbed 15 against Siena before yielding way to his wings in the second round. E’Twaun Moore is more than a lead scoring option at this point. Having grabbed five or more boards only six times prior to Hummel’s injury in late-February, he’s done it on four occasions since.
All of Purdue’s best have been forced to assume greater and different responsibilities. For a few games, it looked like the adjustment curve would be too steep. In reality, it just took those few games to sort everything out.
So maybe they aren’t running about the hardwood in glass Nikes, after all. Their reassertion of top-15 form really had a logical progression, and the very fact that they made it back shouts Zack de la Rocha volumes for their resilience. Is the Hummel situation some perverse form of addition by subtraction? Heavens no. But Purdue now has a special brand of toughness that no one has seen.
And it could be an issue for Duke.
The Devils are playing energized ball beyond what many thought was possible: They’re too slow, the same kind of previous teams that couldn’t make it past two games, blah, blah.
Granted, that kind of assessment was garbage. Duke had one bad loss this season (at NC State), went 8-4 against Dance-bound competition, won their conference in both the regular season and tournament, and have a trio of Scheyer, Singler and Smith that is as good as any three outside of Kentucky and Syracuse.
Cal never had a chance to stage an upset, and Duke rolled through the weekend sans trouble—no resistance, a devil’s food cakewalk.
But while Cal might be a team of Purdue’s talent level, they have nowhere near the grittiness, a grittiness that, possibly, the Devils haven’t seen this season. While Florida State held the top spot in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, their offense was pedestrian (128th), enabling Duke to prevail 70-56 in their only faceoff. Wisconsin, on the other hand, was a top-20 team in both categories; the only team Duke played all year to boast such a stat.
The Badgers won by four.
Purdue is a team of a similar mold—they haven’t scored more than 80 since a January 19 victory over Illinois, but it’s easy to forget that they’ve lost only twice in that span, and their bent for playing games in the 60s has continued. It’s just that the actors at work to maintain style have slowly become accustomed to new roles to ensure that the feet continue to move at pace.
They can win Friday night, without question. It’s redundant to say that they can do so by doing the little things—any team in a close match on talent can win with extra effort, and it’s been that way since peach baskets—but it’s not old news that Purdue has wound up something Duke may not be expecting: a punch to the jaw that no one saw coming as recent as a week ago.
They may look like Cinderella, these Boilermakers. But it’s only a costume for a ferocity that temporarily lost its place.