By CLIFF BRUNT
Chapters in life are funny sometimes.
Check this one out. It’s a doozy.
As you start your journey, all your dreams seemingly are within reach. Your carefully structured plans show promise but begin to crumble. Everything you thought you knew, everything you had banked on, everything that made you who you’ve been, disappears. Nobody seems to be able to retrieve what was lost, and worse yet, nobody seems to care.
Then suddenly, inexplicably, everything clicks. Everything works, and all is as you envisioned. It’s later than you wanted, but it beats the alternative. There is hope for the future, even if right now isn’t what it could have been.
That, my friends, was a year in the life of Purdue coach Matt Painter.
Everything changed in perhaps the most unlikely venue: the Kohl Center in Madison, where winning streaks and title hopes often go to die. Purdue had neither, which makes the rest of this paragraph all the more stunning. D.J. Byrd scored 22 points to help Purdue knock off No. 17 Wisconsin 69-56 on Sunday afternoon.
Byrd played like the senior he is, inspiring his team with his confidence and delivering the goods by making 6 of 9 3-pointers. Terone Johnson continued his inspired play with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Ronnie Johnson played one of his better games with eight points, five rebounds and eight assists to just two turnovers.
Sandi Marcius played out of his mind with 10 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes. More important, he hustled and battled like no one else, giving A.J. Hammons an up-close glimpse of what he should be doing. Hammons has hit a wall. Marcius, he of the limited vertical jump, showed him how to leap over it.
This wasn’t just a win. It was a blueprint of how to beat a top Big Ten team on the road. It was the snapshot of a team that had every reason to go through the motions and didn’t. It is the standard by which next year’s team will be measured. Now, when the talented freshman class comes in next year and starts slacking, the coaching staff can pull out this video of their teammates busting their tails to accomplish something few teams do.
Feel free to going back to having high expectations next year. If I didn’t see Purdue completely obliterate Northwestern by playing hard from bell to bell the previous week, I would call this a fluke. This wasn’t a fluke. There isn’t all that much of a talent difference between Wisconsin and Purdue. There had been an effort difference, and Marcius took care of that. More than anyone, Marcius made sure this was done the Painter Way.
Yes, the Painter Way. Tough defense, unselfish ball movement and maximum effort are the hallmarks. All season, it has seemed Painter has been fighting to reel this talented but uninspired team in and make it play in his image. He has made his frustration clear publicly, something he hasn’t done often over the years. It was starting to look like the man who earned that nice new contract with structure and discipline had lost control.
But there was always a chance things would turn. Since it’s Sunday, I’ll preach for a minute. Proverbs 22:6 reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (King James Version).
He taught them right, they just had to mature to become willing to apply them. They listened, and they reaped the reward, looking not only competitive, but like the better team. It actually didn’t look like an upset on the court. If we knew nothing about either team going into the game, there was nothing to indicate Purdue shouldn’t have won.
It all clicked at the most unlikely time. Wisconsin was the steadiest team in the Big Ten. If any team was supposed to be immune to days like this, it would have been the Badgers. They are as well-coached as any team in the conference, as disciplined and business-like as anyone in the conference. You don’t expect slip-ups from Bo Ryan, and you especially don’t expect slip-ups on Senior Day.
Byrd made it his Senior Day. Perhaps Wisconsin ditched the old scouting report on Byrd. You know, the one that said he’s lethal and you’d better guard him no matter how bad a slump he’s in. Sure, there was little that would have indicated an explosion like this was possible this season. But this was old-school D.J. Byrd. After a while, the Badgers should have flipped their calendars back and found that old game plan.
Somewhere, Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, David Teague, Chris Kramer and all the other past Boilermakers are smiling. Why? Because they finally saw something they recognize wearing black and gold.
And now, Purdue has something to hang its hat on going into the offseason. No matter what the Boilermakers do the rest of the season, they have this. The NIT is an outside possibility now, but postseason play isn’t even necessary to make the point that needed to be made late this season: Purdue still wins, and the Boilermakers still do it the Painter Way. Expect more next year.