Go back and listen to Purdue's postgame comments after its late-December loss to Gardner-Webb, and there were few signs of hope.
Matt Painter lamented his team's season-long inability to deliver a consistent effort. Raphael Davis implored his teammates to focus more on defense. Bryson Scott bemoaned the Boilermakers' lack of energy before pledging to "pull it together, somehow."
Purdue's despondence following a rough non-league slate suggested its season was teetering, which is why its subsequent midseason revival has been such a pleasant surprise. The same Boilermakers team that lost to Gardner-Webb, North Florida and middling Vanderbilt in December has since risen back into contention for an NCAA tournament bid with a strong start to Big Ten play
Thanks to a four-game winning streak that includes home victories over NCAA tournament contenders Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State, Purdue is now 15-8 overall and tied for second in the Big Ten with Maryland at 7-3 in league play. That's impressive for a Boilermakers team expected to finish near the bottom of the league even before its shaky December performance.
The one black mark against Purdue is that its most impressive victories in Big Ten play have all come at home, which explains why its RPI is still just 76th in spite of its surge. Five of the Boilermakers' final eight league games are on the road and they must find a way to win a few of those to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
Quality road wins don't seem so inconceivable anymore, however, with several of Purdue's best players hitting their stride.
Davis has played at an all-conference level during Purdue's win streak, averaging 19.5 points, shooting over 50 percent from the field in all four games and getting to the foul line at will. Enigmatic center A.J. Hammons is also playing closer to the way many thought he could, having sunk 19 of 22 shots in his last four games. That has helped Purdue overcome anemic 28 percent shooting from behind the arc during Big Ten play, worst in the league by far.
Defense has also been a huge reason Purdue has flourished in recent weeks. Matt Painter opted to scrap his zone and focus exclusively on man-to-man entering Big Ten play after the Boilermakers gave up 81 points to Vanderbilt, 94 to Notre Dame and 89 to Gardner-Webb in a nine-day December stretch. That decisions had paid off handsomely as Big Ten teams are shooting only 39.1 percent against Purdue.
The key for Purdue in February is to keep winning because the Boilermakers probably wouldn't be in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today. There are opportunities for road wins ahead with visits to Minnesota and Rutgers up next. The schedule stiffens later with road games at Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State still remaining.
When Purdue finished going through the handshake line Wednesday night after beating Ohio State, the Boilermakers exchanged hugs and pats on the back before high fiving some of their courtside fans on the way off the floor.
It was a striking reminder of how far Purdue has come since the Gardner-Webb loss only six weeks ago when its season seemed to be sinking fast.
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