KRAVITZ: Disappointment no more; Purdue is poised for a long tournament run, possibly a Final Four

Carsen Edwards (3) scored 27 points in Purdue's 76-73 win over Penn State Sunday, February 18, 2018. (Image courtesy Purdue Basketball/Twitter)
Bob Kravitz

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WTHR) - There is only one team that can stop Purdue from going deep, really deep into this upcoming NCAA Tournament, and that team resides right here in West Lafayette. This team will still be playing the second week of the tournament – sorry, Butler, but no, it’s not going to happen if the two Indiana teams meet in the second round – and if they can somehow get the best of Villanova in the Elite Eight, we’ll be eating churros with Charles Barkley on the River Walk in San Antonio.

Some years, I wouldn’t say that. Some years, there are massively talented teams filled with one-and-done NBA stars-to-be. This is not one of those years. The No. 1 seed in the field is Virginia, a remarkable team led by a remarkable young coach in Tony Bennett and led by Indy schoolboy Kyle Guy, but nobody fears a meeting with Virginia.

Duke has Final Four talent, but hasn’t always played like it.

Arizona has Final Four talent, but hasn’t always played like it.

There are no super teams in this field, just a lot of very good, very solid teams – like Purdue – who have a chance to reach the Final Four.

“On paper, there’s no doubt (the field is wide open this year),’’ Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I don’t think the (seeding) numbers matter as much this year…There won’t be a lot of difference. You don’t have the unbelievably dominant teams where you say, `There’s no way they’re going to get past that team.’ The parity is really strong, even more so this year than in past years.’’

I know about Purdue’s history. I know about all the painful exits. I know Purdue fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. It’s understandable given this program’s star-crossed post-season history.

I am here to say: It doesn’t matter.

If this group plays the way they did through the better part of the season – if Vincent Edwards, in particular, comes back healthy after injuring his ankle late in the year – the Boilers will be sitting pretty. They will beat No. 15 seed Cal State-Fullerton. They will beat the winner of the Arkansas-Butler game, and yes, we’d love to see a Purdue-Butler rematch but don’t feel real confident it’s going to happen. They will beat one of the two likely teams to advance on the other side of the bracket – Florida? West Virginia? Then it comes down to the Elite Eight and a likely meeting with Villanova, at which point, all bets are off.

Purdue is not a perfect team, by any measure. They lack players who can create their own shot off the dribble, except, of course, for Carsen Edwards. They don’t have a ton of depth. But show me one team that has dominated this year’s college game with overwhelming raw talent. Purdue’s only consensus top-100 recruit is Isaac Haas, but this is the kind of season when it feels like the best team will win, and not the best set of individuals.

“I don’t think there’s too much difference between this year’s team and last year’s, except we’re missing a guy (Caleb Swanigan) who we’d love to have come back,’’ Vincent Edwards said. “The only thing that’s really different is that everybody contributes, and it’ll take everybody playing their best basketball to win. In the past, we’ve had that go-to guy that we’ve relied on. With this team, everybody has to come ready because anybody can win us a game.’’

There’s so much to like. There’s P.J. Thompson, who simply never makes mistakes and makes Purdue almost unbeatable when he’s knocking down 3-pointers. There’s Carsen Edwards, who has a chance to emerge these next few weeks on the national stage. There’s Haas, who forces opposing coaches to answer the eternal question, “Do we double-team him and get waxed by three-balls, or play him man-to-man and take our chances?’’ There’s Dakota Mathias, who needs to look for his shot in this tournament and continues to be one of those players who makes everybody around him better. And there’s Vincent Edwards, one of the most versatile 4-men in the country and a guy who can take over a game – when he’s healthy, and that still remains something of a question after his late-season ankle injury.

“It’s still a little sore, but I’ve been pushing it,’’ he said Sunday. “I’m trying to get my explosiveness back now. I’m getting my steps back, finishing better at the rim, but it’s still sore. Not all the way there, but it’s better than it’s been.’’

There are no excuses, no what-ifs this time. We know the history, the No. 1 seeds in 1988, 1994 and 1996, Purdue falling short of the Final Four for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s talent. More of the time, it’s just dumb luck, like how Purdue found itself playing Kansas in Kansas City, hanging with the Jayhawks until a blitzkrieg did them in on what was essentially Kansas’ home court.

This lines up beautifully, though, for Purdue. There are no obvious speed bumps along the way. Anything short of the Elite Eight, or one step further than last year’s team, would be a disappointment. The Boilers haven’t been to a Final Four since 1980. This can be the year.

“The most important team is ourselves,’’ Painter said. “We still have to take care of the basketball, still have to execute, still have to do some very basic things no matter who we play.’’

Purdue fans have become accustomed to head-scratching exits and disappointments. Which is why this run, which should last deep into the tournament and may possibly end in San Antonio, will seem so sweet.

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