By CLIFF BRUNT
A lot of fans aren’t thrilled about Purdue’s CBI game Wednesday against Western Illinois.
They ought to be. This is exactly what the Boilermakers need.
Purdue showed great improvement in the final games of the regular season, defeating Wisconsin on the road and Minnesota at home and pushing Michigan before losing by five. The loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament was an unexpected and painful one, but important for the long-range success of the program.
See, Purdue has turned a corner. As soon as the Boilermakers beat Wisconsin on the road, a Badgers team I believe has Final Four potential, it was a warning shot to the college basketball world. Any time a team that young does something that big, it grabs attention.
Purdue was no longer the underdog when it faced the Cornhuskers. The Boilermakers became a team you could get excited to play against. Purdue wasn’t just some team with a losing record, it was the team everybody was talking about.
Now that Nebraska has smacked Purdue back to reality, a great learning opportunity exists.
It is best Purdue learns how to deal with being a target as soon as possible. The football team handled it poorly last season, therefore, Danny Hope is no longer around. Better to figure it out late this season than early next season. You don’t want to go into a season in which your team is expected to reach the NCAA tournament and start losing non-conference games because your team didn’t know how to take it up a notch against lesser teams. From this point forward, beating Purdue means something again.
Coach Matt Painter needs to know who wants to be serious about playing Boilermaker basketball. He’s talked about needing 12-month guys. I’m sure there were a few uncomfortable folks in the locker room after that comment.
We know Terone Johnson, Ronnie Johnson and A.J. Hammons will probably be honors candidates next season. We know that Rapheal Davis and Sandi Marcius will contribute. Yes, Hammons needs as many games to learn how to toughen up and dominate as he can get. And yes, Johnson needs to continue to improve as a decision maker. Davis could benefit from time to become more comfortable with his role on the team. But all those guys are secure in their positions. Their payoff for this tournament is that they will be better key players next year.
But what about the other guys who are scheduled to return next season? Donnie Hale, Anthony Johnson, Travis Carroll and Jacob Lawson, the time is now to how you’re ready to contribute at a high level and put yourself in good standing heading into the offseason. This is gut check time. To be ready in situations like this, a reserve has to be self-motivated. There are going to be tough decisions for coaches and players to make because a talented freshman class is coming in and playing time will be tougher to come by next season. These guys really need to make the most of their minutes or they’ll lose them down the road.
And, while this game might not seem to be a big game for Purdue, it’s huge for Western Illinois. The Leathernecks shared the Summit League regular-season title and set a school record for wins as a Division I program.
“Our players earned the right to play in a postseason tournament and we believe that we couldn’t have drawn a tougher opponent in any tournament, besides maybe the NCAA tournament, in Purdue,” Jim Molinari, the Summit League’s coach of the year, said. “Our young men are extremely excited about the challenge.
This is a perfect test. The Boilermakers face a talented upstart team with something to prove that will push them so we find out once and for all what these guys are made of. When you get enough guys who will play hard and play winning basketball with little to play for, you know you’ve got real players. If the Boilermakers can make a run, as their talent indicates they should be able to, Purdue can head into the offseason knowing that it showed some heart and bounced back after the loss to Nebraska. That’s the kind of progress this young team needs to show.
There’s perhaps never been a more important unimportant game in program history.