Purdue’s basketball exorcism took them all over the world. There’s only one stop left

GLENDALE, AZ. — The Purdue Boilermakers needed a vacation after suffering one of the most devastating losses in college basketball history. Fortunately, they already had a couple big ones planned.

The Boilermakers boarded a plane to Munich, Germany in early Aug. to shed their skin and begin anew. They played four games against pro teams during their 11 days in Europe, but this wasn’t exactly a business trip. Purdue had to heal before it could get to work.

The excursion included stops in Italy, Austria, and Slovakia. It didn’t include a certain 7’4, 300-pound center, because Zach Edey was busy training for the FIBA World Cup with Team Canada. On the court, the Boilermakers had to learn how to play without relying so heavily on the national player of the year. The work they did off the floor was even more important.

Purdue basked in historic European sightseeing. They shopped at a Gucci store in Vienna, sailed on Lake Como in Italy, and ate meat and bread you can’t find in central Indiana. This was an opportunity for the Boilermakers to get to know their new teammates like Lance Jones, Camden Heide, and Myles Colvin who weren’t on the roster last year. It was also a chance for Purdue to reckon with the deeply humiliating loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the 2023 NCAA tournament, and turn the page to a new year.

Purdue took another long flight a few months later. This one was definitely a business trip. The Boilermakers went out to Hawaii to compete in the Maui Invitational, staring at a murder’s row of competition. In their first game, they faced eventual Sweet 16 opponent Gonzaga. Purdue trailed at the half before storming back in the final 20 minutes and turning the game into a rout. Next up was eventual Elite Eight opponent Tennessee. The game was tied with just over two minutes left, setting the stage for Purdue to choke in a big game like they always do. Only this time, Edey made his free throws, Braden Smith made a clutch layup, and Purdue survived.

The Maui championship game pitted them against Marquette, an eventual No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The first half closed with a three-quarters court swish from Lance Jones. Purdue would win by those three points.

The Boilermakers stayed in Hawaii an extra day. They visited Pearl Harbor and laid out on the beach, with many of the players being joined by their families. They had won a meaningful championship, and started to learn how good they could be. They saw all the ways this team was different from last year. Edey was in better shape. Smith and shooting guard Fletcher Loyer were done taking their lumps as freshmen and were ready for the sophomore leap. Jones added a certain je ne sais quoi to the mix, a dog on the court who couldn’t stop smiling off of it.

Purdue knew they were good, and believed they were great. They also knew no one was going to believe it until the calendar turned to March.

NC State v Purdue

Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

The emotions came pouring out of Purdue after it beat Tennessee to punch the program’s first ticket to the Final Four since 1980. There was Edey, typically stoic, barking at the haters on a live mic. There was Robbie Hummel, the most star-crossed former Boilermaker of them all, unable to conduct an interview because he was too busy crying.

If you expected a similar response from Purdue after putting itself in the national championship game on Sunday night by defeating NC State, 63-50, in the Final Four, think again. If anything, the Boilermakers seemed totally unsatisfied with how they played.

“We just didn’t play great,” head coach Matt Painter said after the game.

“I played terrible,” said point guard Braden Smith, who didn’t make his first shot until there was under four minutes left in regulation.

Even Edey had an off-night (20 points, 14 rebounds) by his incredible standards. NC State defended him well all game, denying him deep post position and sending late doubles to force him into turnovers. It was on the rest of the Boilermakers to step up and ball out, and that’s exactly what happened.

Lance Jones hit four three-pointers, Loyer hit three triples, and Mason Gillis hit two deep shots. A year ago, Purdue shot 32.2 percent as a team from three. This season, the Boilermakers are shooting 40.6 percent from three, the second best mark in the country.

Of course, an off-night for Edey is a career game for almost anyone else. That’s what happens when a team is built around the first back-to-back national player of the year in more than 40 years. Edey has faced harsh criticism from the moment he ascended into an elite player as a sophomore. He’s just big is the most common refrain. He’s a free throw merchant is another.

Well, college basketball has seen plenty of massive 7-footers over the years, and a lot of them sucked. Most of them struggle to stay on the floor because of conditioning or foul trouble. Against NC State, Edey played all 40 minutes, never checking out the game until the final whistle. How many 300-pound guys can do that? He also only attempted two free throws on the night. It’s long past time to find some new narratives.

“This is what we’ve been talking about all year,” Edey said after beating NC State. “The reason I came back is playing games like this. The reason I’m playing college basketball for four years is to finally get this game.”

“It’s everything,” Loyer said after the win. “It’s everything we’ve worked for, everything we thought about. A lot of late nights, can’t even sleep because you’re thinking about it.”

With UConn waiting on championship Monday, Purdue’s toughest opponent still lies ahead of them. One thing is for sure: these Boilermakers have already conquered their demons from last season. Another vacation is coming after Monday either way. This time, Purdue would like to skip the healing.

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