Mike Lopresti: Purdue’s No. 1 ranking now doesn’t mean much in March

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Note from Mike: As I wrote this for Tuesday deadline, I mentioned how the schedule suggested Purdue could keep winning and stay at No. 1 for weeks. The fact the Boilermakers lost at Rutgers 48 hours later should not detract from the brilliance of this assessment. Rutgers had dropped four of its previous five games—the most recent by 35 points—and was 324th in the nation in field goal shooting. Purdue was third. But it was the Scarlet Knights who hit almost all the big shots, including the game winner put up from the next zip code. After that, half the population of New Jersey appeared to storm the court. Welcome to the world of No. 1, Boilers.
Sports: Mike Lopresti

Three things you can say in 2021 you never could before:

1. A man’s not a true billionaire until he’s blasted off into space.

2. Alpha Delta Omicron. That’s not a sorority at IU; those are virus variants.

3. Purdue men’s basketball is No. 1.

It’s the last one we come to discuss today.

How can this be? Purdue produced the first man who walked on the moon, the pilot who famously ditched his troubled airliner in the Hudson River without a casualty and the guy who invented the chicken nugget—and never was No. 1 before?

John Wooden dwelled at the top of the polls for so long at UCLA, he had his mail sent there. But his alma mater never has been? Never? This bastion of program stability, where there have been only two coaches in four decades and the last fellow to leave with a losing career record was 72 years ago?

True. Until now. And the vote was unanimous. Nobody from Texas tried to slip in a Baylor ballot.

“It shows that we’re special,” Trevion Williams said the other day. “But we can’t settle for that. Once we become No. 1, we want to stay No. 1.”

To mark the special occasion, we should have a brief orientation session. Four things to know about No. 1 …

The ranking is certainly worth celebrating, but the plain fact is, it hasn’t cut all that much ice come March. Only two No. 1 teams in the final Associated Press poll in the past 25 NCAA Tournaments have ended up national champions—Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2001. Only four of the past 12 even advanced to the Final Four.

And March is what this is all about, right? The charm of No. 1 kind of fades if you lose to North Texas again. There are a couple of streaks that should inspire the Boilermakers more than never getting the most votes in a weekly poll before.

Like the 53 years it has been since their one and only championship game appearance. Jacksonville has been there since. Indiana State. Seton Hall and Utah. Butler twice. IU four times.

Or the 42 years since Purdue’s last Final Four. Fifty-three schools have made it that far since 1980, including the likes of George Mason, VCU, Loyola, Wichita State, Mississippi State and Massachusetts.

Purdue guard Jaden Ivey reacts after a fast-break slam-dunk against Iowa on Dec. 3. The Boilermakers beat the Hawkeyes 77-70. (AP photo)

The Boilermakers have won or shared 24 Big Ten titles, more than any other conference school. Yeah, even you, Hoosiers. They have had 28 consensus All-Americans, most in the league. But eight current members of the Big Ten have been to the Final Four since Purdue was last there. Maryland won the national championship in 2002. The Terrapins have never been No. 1, either. Nineteen of the other 24 schools in the top 25 this week have been to the Final Four since Purdue’s last appearance.

That’s the real breakthrough the Boilermakers are chasing.

“This has happened to a lot of people that have been ranked high early in the season. It doesn’t mean they end there,” coach Matt Painter said. “Our goal is to end there and be one of the better teams in the NCAA Tournament and make a long run in the NCAA Tournament.

“We know how tough that is.”

Purdue has been No. 1 before, just not in men’s basketball. The women were there in 1999, on the way to the national championship. The Leroy Keyes-led football team was at the top for the first three weeks of the 1968 season. But then the Boilermakers traveled to Columbus and were shut out 13-0 by Ohio State. They’ve never been back.

The rest of the state has some history with the number, too.

IU has been No. 1 in eight different seasons, the last time 2012, when the Hoosiers were at the top until tripping over Butler at the Crossroads Classic. They were back later in the year, but that season crashed against the Syracuse zone in the Sweet 16. Indiana hasn’t always needed the high ranking, anyway. The Hoosiers won the national championship in 1981 and were never higher than No. 5.

Larry Bird passes the ball behind his back during the NCAA semifinal game against DePaul University on March 24, 1979. Indiana State came into the tournament undefeated and ranked No. 1, but lost the championship game to Michigan State. (AP photo)

Indiana State was No. 1 in the Larry Bird glory days, but the unbeaten Sycamores were unplugged by Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national championship game.

Notre Dame was there for one week in 1974, the reward for ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in South Bend. The Irish knocked off the Bruins and took their place in the polls. But they had a rematch the next week at UCLA and lost by 19 points. Goodbye, No. 1. Notre Dame was back to No. 1 in 1979 for a brief stay, but that’s it for all time. Not like the autumn. The football team has been No. 1 in 26 different seasons, though only once here in the SEC century.

Butler has beaten a No. 1 team but never been one. The Bulldogs were no higher than 11th in their first run to the national championship game run in 2010. They went back in 2011 when they were 33rd in the voting in the final AP poll.

Even when the Colts won the Super Bowl in the 2006 season, they were seeded only No. 3 in the AFC.

So wear the moniker proudly, Purdue. Just be aware it might not mean much in the end.

Now that the Boilermakers are there, the question is how long they plan to stay. There are a lot of college basketball seasons where the No. 1 spot is like a plate of rolls passed around the dinner table. But the schedule suggests it could be a while. Look at this week’s top 25, and there is not a team on the list that Purdue plays until Wisconsin on Jan. 3, and no away game scheduled against a currently ranked opponent until Michigan State on Feb. 26.

Then again, anyone with even a modest understanding of Big Ten basketball understands that few games are easy, especially on the road. Three days after climbing to No. 1, Painter had to worry about going to Rutgers. And then meeting North Carolina State in Brooklyn. You probably know how expensive a weekend in New York City can be. Plus, anything can happen anywhere, at any time, against anybody. For further information, consult the Florida Gators, who were ranked No. 20 and playing at home this past week, then proceeded to lose to 0-7 Texas Southern. By 15 points.

For potentially a real moment of truth, mark these 10 days down in January: The Boilermakers will be at Illinois the 11th, Michigan the 17th and Indiana the 20th. If Purdue is still No. 1 after all that, we’re talking juggernaut. If we aren’t already.

One bad night, and the Boilermakers will find out the No. 1 ranking is often really just an ejector seat. And it comes with a burden, too. They will now be a prime target of malice in lots of arenas, not just Assembly Hall.

Still, you take history where you can find it. Purdue just did.•


Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mjl5853@aol.com.

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