Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Season Obituaries: Purdue

There are almost 350 Division I college basketball teams. Fans of maybe half a dozen of those 350 schools expect to contend for national championships every year. Fans of 250 or so teams know that they have practically no chance of ever winning the title. Success is measured in other ways for that silent majority of basketball programs: conference championships, perhaps, and in very special years, upsets of historically stronger programs in the NCAA tournament. Morehead State defeating Louisville is their championship.

Every Big Ten team falls into the middle category, neither elite nor destitute (Ohio State and Michigan State fans might disagree, as might jaded Northwestern and Penn State fans). There are no Dukes, North Carolinas, Kentuckys, or Kansases in the Big Ten; the closest fit is Indiana, and they have now been down for long enough that Hoosier fans have learned not to take success for granted.

Great teams at these mid-level programs are built over time, with a succession of solid recruiting classes and a little luck. If everything goes right—if those schools find a couple hidden recruiting gems, if their best players stick around for their junior and senior years, if they can get immediate contributions from a couple of younger players—they have every bit as good a chance to win a championship as those blue chip programs, at least for a year or two. Seldom are these opportunities complete lightning strikes. Even when Final Four runs are unexpected, as with Michigan State in 2010, there is a groundwork prepared. Fans see the growth of the team over time and anticipate when these windows of opportunity might open; that’s why Indiana fans can say “wait for 2014” and not sound completely batty. Quite a bit will still have to go right for the Hoosiers, but at least there is a blueprint.

These years of anticipation are exciting because there’s no saying how things will turn out. Indiana probably won’t win the national championship in 2014 (I’ll take even money on the field if you are offering). But they still might. Every little success on the road to that potential bigger success will only increase the anticipation, a tantalizing athletic foreplay of sorts.

Purdue fans have enjoyed this process, beginning perhaps all the way back when Robbie Hummel, Jajuan Johnson, and E’twuan Moore signed their letters of intent. Every season since, the odds of Purdue winning that elusive national championship got better as those already-spectacular players matured. All Boilermaker fans could point to March 2011 and say, without puffery, that no program would have as good an opportunity as they would. For just a season or two, they would be Duke.

Maybe that opportunity died the moment Robbie Hummel planted his knee at The Barn in last February. Maybe it died a few months later when Hummel reinjured the same knee. Maybe it died only last month, when a Purdue team with two All-America players lost in the Round of 32 to the fourth-best team in the Colonial Athletic Association.

These obituaries are not previews of future seasons; there will be time for that as we near Midnight Madness. Perhaps the return of Robbie Hummel and the development of this season’s role players could lead to an unexpected run; I certainly wouldn’t say that there’s no chance this will happen. But the 2011 Purdue Boilermakers season certainly felt like more than the loss of a game to VCU, or a failure to win the Big Ten Championship, or a failure to make the Final Four. It felt like the closing of an opportunity, the sad wind-down after years of anticipation.

The possibilities for the future are less bounded than even our ability to imagine those possibilities; VCU proved that. Yet the past is permanent, final, without potential for creativity, except only when imagining alternate endings now forever foreclosed. Purdue had their opportunity and failed to reach the ultimate goal. The disappointment of Purdue in 2011 comes not from that single loss to VCU, but from the loss of all those hopes that had come before. This coming season, or perhaps the season following, the cycle will begin anew for Purdue fans, and they can once again return, if only in their minds, to the not-yet-realized universe in which their team will win a national championship. Forgive them, though, for spending a few extra moments mourning the end of the 2011 season, because it was also the end of much more.