WEST LAFAYETTE — The pregame theatrics at Mackey Arena are quite a sight.
Blinking lights scatter the arena, the ritual chants splatter expletives at in-state rival Indiana. Students line the seats to the rafters, swaying back and forth in preparation. Right before the lineup announcements and tip-off — just seconds before the lights dim and the show begins — a video starts on the jumbotron. There’s one sentence before the crowd renders it nearly inaudible.
“America, meet Purdue.”
With a 92-88 win over Michigan Thursday night, the Boilermakers have now won 16 games in a row. It’s a team that embarassed Arizona and Louisville early in the year. Since, it has only steamrolled opponents on the way to a perfect conference record. It has arguably the most unguardable center in the nation, surrounding him with four players who shoot 40 percent or better from 3-point range.
“You have five lights out shooters — I mean, lights out,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Nik Stauskas, Tim Hardaway, Trey Burke, right? But with five of them on the perimeter, with an incredible big man. It’s a very difficult challenge for everybody.
“I don’t think I’m crazy, you guys have seen teams that have come into the Big Ten. Who has five guys that shoot on the run? They don’t even have to get themselves open.”
It all starts with behemoth center Isaac Haas. Each time the 7-foot-2 center touches the ball in the paint without an immediate double-team, a chorus of suprised cheer rains around the arena, as if they’re collectively getting away with some crime.
Perhaps single-teaming Haas should be a crime. If given position in the lane, Haas catches and lays the ball in with incomporable inevitability. He scored all six of his team’s points in the first four minutes of the game, and notched 24 points on 14 shots in just 20 minutes.
“You guys try and go guard him,” Beilein said. “It is impossible.”
But that’s what makes Purdue so difficult to play: Beilein didn’t even care that Haas was dominating.
“If Haas scored 40 points with 20 twos it’s okay with us,” he said. “But we weren’t going to give up the three. We couldn’t do that. They’re just too good.”
For much of the game Thursday night, though, Michigan matched Purdue shot for shot.
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played arguably the best game of his career, notching 26 points with step-back threes and even some uncharacteristic bravado. Sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson added a career-high 16 points of his own.
In total, the Wolverines scored an absurd 1.48 points per possession, made eight of their 12 3-point attempts, scored 52 points and got 29 points combined from Abdur-Rahkman and junior center Moritz Wagner in the second half. And lost.
Purdue took every blow, and punched back. It matched every Wagner attack with a Haas hammer, followed every Abdur-Rahkman deep three with a deeper one of its own. In the end, the Boilermakers emerged victorious, and continued on its tormenting run of dominance.
Purdue ranks third nationally in the Associated Press top-25. It also ranks top-10 nationally in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
“They provide a difficult matchup with size inside and the shooters everywhere. Not many teams are like them,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “We kept fighting until the end, but it just wasn’t enough.”
And yet, perhaps based on preconceived notions or past history, the Boilermakers still aren’t getting their due nationally.
The Boilermakers haven’t made it past the Sweet Sixteen since the 1999-2000 season. Last year they reached the Sweet Sixteen only to be eviscerated, 98-66, by Kansas. Only time will tell if this team is, indeed, different in the postseason.
But that doesn’t faze them.
“I believe we’re a really good team,” Haas said after the game, before pausing to reconsider that stance. “I believe we’re the best team in the nation. And I just want to show everybody.”
America, meet Purdue.
You’ll be seeing quite a bit of them come March and April.