Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Gophers Look For Marquee Win Against Painter's Boilers

When the Gophers head to West Lafayette tonight to take on the Purdue Boilermakers, it will mark Minnesota's last best chance to tell the college basketball world that they can play with tournament bound teams.

Until now, the Gophers have flirted with making such a statement. There were the free throw misses at home in a winnable games against Indiana. There was the game at home against Michigan State that was played without Al Nolen. And there was a hard fought loss at Wisconsin's Kohl Center that could have went Minnesota's way had the offense executed down the stretch.

But instead of covering Minnesota's season, let's take a look at the surprise of the Big Ten, perhaps of the country.

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I have been very high on the Purdue Boilermakers. Early on, there weren't many writers, mainstream or otherwise, who gave Matt Painter's crew much of a chance to compete in the Big Ten. My position on Purdue was so out of the ordinary that a Purdue message board linked to this post and stated something to the effect of "A Minnesota blogger believes in us!"

In that post, I predicted the Boilermakers would finish 4th in the Big Ten. I hate to sound like Aaron Gleeman, and point back at something just to point out I was right, but ... here's what I wrote about Purdue as conference play was about to begin.

I know, I know, they're too young. They lost to Wofford and Iowa State. But ... they also handled Louisville and have the best group of youngsters in the conference. Some early season struggles were to be expected. Now the question is can Matt Painter coach these guys. And I think he can. Just consider that two years ago the Boilers languished at the bottom of the Big Ten. Last season, Painter had Purdue dancing and lost to Florida in the second round by single digits. That would indicate the Purdue alum can coach. Youngsters to watch include combo guard E'Twaun Moore, forward Scott Martin, 6'10" center JaJuan Johnson and forward Robbie Hummel.

When the Gophers tipoff against Purdue tonight--in the only meeting of the season between the two clubs--the Gophers will face a Purdue team has exceeded even my lofty expectations for them. The Baby Boilers are 12-2 in conference and in the thick of the Big Ten regular season title race. A win tonight puts the Boilers in a three-way tie atop the league.

Moore and Hummel have been absolute game changers. Hummel is doing everything: hitting from the perimter, scoring in double-digits and leading the team with 5.9 reboudns per game. Meanwhile, Moore is leading the team with 11.9 poiunts per game. Not bad for two freshman.

I could go on about Purdue's young team, but I want to focus just for a minute on Painter. The Purdue alum is the odds on favorite to collect hardware for Big Ten Coach of the Year. He deserves the nod. And he deserves credit for reecruiting the quartet of freshman in the first place. According to this Rivals article reprinted by Yahoo!, Painter had a decision to make two years ago. He could pursue high-impact talent like Greg Oden and Mike Conley. But he didn't put much effort in there, realizing that Purdue was a longshot to secure those rare talents. Instead, he tied down the area surrounding Purdue. All four of the freshman played high school and AAU ball within 100 miles of West Lafayette.

The Purdue lesson is one that Minnesota fans hope will play out in Williams Arena. Last season, Matt Painter took the Boilers to the tournament with two senior leaders. Now led by youth, the Boilers have taken another step forward. The situation for Minnesota is strikingly similar. Tubby Smith has revitalized the program. A team that finished 9-22 last season is flirting with 20 wins this season while being led by three senior leaders. And next year the Gophers have a mildly hyped five-man recruiting class of their own.

PREDICTION: The Gophers are decided underdogs tonight, even with that experience on our side. The best hope for the Gophers is the Boilermakers realize what they are playing for. But I think Purdue is 12-2 for a reason, and because this game is on the road for the Gophers I'm predicting a 72-64 Purdue win. But watch the game and enjoy it even if it gets ugly. Matt Painter doesn't get the attention Tubby Smith, Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan or Thad Matta do. But he just might be a coach in the process of building something that will sustain.


J Money said...

Nice work and kudos to recognizing something that, as you said, most of the country did not. Our own blog kind of expected an NIT type of year with a chance at sneaking into the big dance.

PJS said...

I think I have an unhealthy mancrush on Matt Painter. I've had conversations with friends and argued the Gophers would have done well to hire a young, up and comer like Painter. That's not to say I'm upset with the Tubby hire, quite the opposite actually. But Painter could be the Purdue coach for the next 10-20 years. It's likely his dream job and I doubt he would bolt for one of the handful of jobs that are considered the top echelon of college basketball jobs.

lonebadger said...


lonebadger said...

Didn't work! Oh well, get 'em next time.

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