It was still December, and Purdue fans were out on the ledge. In short order, the Boilermakers had lost at home to North Florida and Gardner-Webb and dropped quite the nail-biter — 94-63 — to Notre Dame on a neutral court in Indianapolis.
It was bad. It was real bad.
Yet here we are some 12 weeks later, and the Boilers are in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinals against league bully Wisconsin. It’s a 1-vs.-4 seed matchup that might not look very sexy on paper, but you know what? A 12-6 record in Big Ten regular-season play is kind of sexy. And so is making the NCAA Tournament — for the first time in three years — which the Boilers surely will do after a 64-59 victory over 13th-seeded Penn State on Friday at the United Center lifted their overall mark to 21-11.
“You’re disappointed more than anything when you have some tough losses,” coach Matt Painter said. “But you can also learn from them and get better. You have a choice. … I [still] liked our team. I liked the makeup of our team.”
It includes Jon Octeus, a rail-thin senior guard who somehow ripped down a career-high 11 rebounds and helped harass Nittany Lions standout D.J. Newbill into a 6-for-18 shooting day. It includes fellow guard Rapheal Davis, whose all-out dive over the press table to save a loose ball was straight out of a Dennis Rodman highlight video.
The winning makeup seems even to include seven-foot center A.J. Hammons, who had 23 points, nine boards and four big blocks and at last is shedding the knocks against him about his questionable motor.
And if definitely includes Painter, the 10th-year coach who led the program to six straight NCAA tourneys before a two-year drought. This season — only weeks apart — fans had him on the hot seat and in the conversation for league coach of the year.
A victory over Wisconsin would take things from good to great, but can it happen? The Badgers (29-3) showed moments of weakness in a 71-60 defeat of ninth-seeded Michigan, but on the whole they were typically mighty. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes each scored in double figures and affected the game in multiple areas.
Many feel the Badgers are too good, too well-rounded, too confident to be knocked out in Chicago. What’s Purdue supposed to do, not take a swing at them?
“They’re a hard team [to play],” Hammons said, “but I feel like we do have something to prove. We started off last in the Big Ten and we just worked out way up, so it’s something we’ve got to keep doing.”