By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — I said in my Purdue-Michigan preview that the game after the upset tells more about a team than the upset. The next game tells you if the team’s improvement was real or a mirage.
Purdue’s follow-up to its win over Wisconsin was pretty strong. The Boilermakers led No. 7 Michigan by 12 in the second half before falling 80-75 on Wednesday night.
For those who want to say Purdue choked away an opportunity, I invite them to gain some perspective. Yes, Purdue could have tied the score late, and yes, Ronnie Johnson and Terone Johnson misconnected on a pass they probably made work a million times during their childhood.
The Boilermakers from three weeks ago lose that game by 20.
I get it. No moral victories. This is Purdue, and the fans are used to winning. But recognize this. The light bulb is now on, and the Boilermakers are now a potential spoiler in the Big Ten tournament. This is not a team anybody wants to see in Chicago.
“We’re making some strides,” coach Matt Painter said after the game. “We’re getting better. I wish were doing this six weeks ago.”
There are a lot more positives than negatives to come out of the Boilermakers’ performance. As Chris Kramer said in a tweet he sent me on Friday, “They’re figuring it out and playing the right way.”
Let’s look at them after the ESPN video highlights.
Terone Johnson did it again.
Every time it seems Terone Johnson can’t get any better, he steps up. He scored a career-high 32 points against Michigan, including 19 in the second half. Johnson being a leader has become a recurring theme. This is the player folks hoped he would become, and perhaps more. He also seemed to feel it the most after it became clear Purdue couldn’t win.
“Terone was great,” Painter said. “Scoring the basketball, those shots that he makes, he makes it look pretty easy. Those are pretty difficult shots. He got into a pretty good rhythm today, and he was a guy we could count on the score the basketball.”
Marcius is a crowd favorite
Sandi has become somewhat of a cult hero in West Lafayette. It would be a typical Indiana story, except that he’s from Croatia. He’s a hard worker who overachieves and succeeds because he believes in playing his role to the best of his ability. Marcius is physically strong and is an intense competitor. And let’s finally give him credit for having some offensive skill. He has decent footwork, is comfortable with his back to the basket and finishes relatively well after establishing position. He has emerged as a legitimate starter over the more talented but less focused and less experienced A.J. Hammons. When Marcius twisted his right ankle, the Purdue fans sat in stunned silence for at least five seconds. You would have thought Robbie Hummel blew out his ACL. Then, the crowd chanted, “San-di! San-di!” Two months ago, there’s no chant. He has earned the respect of the fans.
I asked Painter about Marcius after the game and his eyes lit up when he started talking about his 6-9 center.
“Our fans, they’re cheering for him, I can tell you, because what he did at Wisconsin is that he played hard, he gave us energy. He’s just got a positive outlook. He’s got a smile on his face and he’s happy to be here. And he worked hard and did some really good things for us today. It’s too bad that he got hurt.”
Purdue never quit.
It would have been easy to tank it after falling behind by double digits, when the only person who could score was Marcius. This team didn’t. This is what folks have been waiting to see: resilience. More than anything else, that word has defined Purdue basketball during the Painter era. It’s why the people cheer for Marcius, and why they have cheered for guys like Bobby Riddell and Dru Anthrop over the years. Those guys are fighters, and when their number is called, they are ready.
Hammons is starting to get it.
Hammons, at one point, dove on the floor for a loose ball in the second half. It’s not something he’s done often. Don’t think he isn’t watching Marcius and noticing how the crowd responds. In the end, Marcius’ growth will be good for Hammons because Hammons won’t be the man again until he plays harder.
Rapheal Davis was strong.
Davis had 15 points and nine rebounds in his best game in a long time. He looked confident and was looking to score instead of being hesitant. Davis is a player who needs to be a little selfish. He’s too talented to not try to score. If I was Davis, I’d be trying to establish myself with Jay Simpson coming back next season and Basil Smotherman coming in.
Now there were bad things, too. D.J. Byrd scored three points on 1-for-7 shooting. Ronnie Johnson made some more bad decisions. They blew the big lead. Burke scored 22 points in 12:14. But Burke took those points. There wasn’t going to be any stopping him. There are nights like that. Purdue’s effort, against any less of a team than Michigan, probably results in a win.
Bottom line? Purdue is a good team now.
The Boilermakers have a chance to close out the right way Saturday against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are talented but mistake prone, and they are inconsistent enough to be at risk to lose on Saturday. In Minnesota’s past five games, the Gophers lost to Iowa by 21 and Ohio State by 26 before beating No. 1 Indiana, rolling Penn State 73-44, then somehow losing at Nebraska. So Minnesota is beatable. Purdue is now a borderline NCAA Tournament-caliber team itself. It just became one a little too late.