WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A few weeks ago, when Purdue was ranked No. 6 in the country and catching the eye of the nation early in the season, senior guard Sasha Stefanovic didn't want to make too much of all the attention.
"It's not our goal to finish No. 6 in the country,'' the 6-foot-5 sharpshooter said.
No, this talented and experienced Boilermakers team has bigger goals than that. They feel like they're the best team in the Big Ten, and believe they can make it to the Final Four, something a Purdue team hasn't accomplished since 1980, a long 42 years ago.
And they feel like when they get there, they can win the school's first national title.
They think they're that good, but they also know there is plenty of work still to be done. They have all the pieces to make a run, but it's a long season, too.
One step at a time.
That next step came on Monday, though, when the new Associated Press top-25 poll was released and had the 8-0 Boilermakers at No. 1. For all the great teams and great players that have been at Purdue through the years, that's never happened before.
"Absolutely it would be a tremendous honor,'' Stefanovic said last week. "Thinking big picture, there's been a lot of great teams and a lot of great coaches here. It's kind of surreal to be honest. It's a great position to be in.''
Sophomore guard Jaden Ivey, the team's leader in scoring and steals, knows all about potential. He also knows about this team's great expectations. They are real. And accolades along the way come with the territory. You want to be the best? Somebody might tell you how great you are along the way.
"Having expectations for us being really good, that all comes along with all the work we've put in,'' Ivey said. "We could be No. 1 coming up after Friday, but we just focus on what we can control, working hard and playing for each other.
"We don't really look at the rankings, to be honest, because we know it's 0-0 come March. We just want to keep getting better.''
Trevion Williams has been around for four years now, and the 6-foot-10 senior center sees the growth in this team, growth that's building in to something special. Being ranked No. 1, it's some kind of validation.
But getting there and staying there are two different things.
“This is definitely an accomplishment for us. It's history, and it's special, but we don’t want to settle for that,'' Williams said. "We want to build off that, and stay No. 1.
"I'm excited to be No. 1 in the country. I feel like we put in our work to deserve that. If we continue to put in the work, we'll stay No. 1. That's the goal.'
What makes this Purdue team special is that they are Painter's deepest team ever. They are, like ESPN's Seth Greenburg last week, a "Noah's Ark team, because they've got two of everything.''
Ivey is one of the most explosive players in the country, and a likely top-10 pick in next year's NBA Draft if he chooses to turn pro. They have a two-headed monster at center, 7-foot-4 sophomore Zach Edey as the starter and Williams, a former first-team All-Big Ten player, coming off the bench. In their 40 minutes on the floor combined, they are averaging 27.9 points and 15.9 rebounds a game.
They go 10 deep, and they can kill you in lots of ways. They've proved that so far in their 8-0 start that includes wins over four top-40 teams, North Carolina, Villanova, Florida State and Iowa.
Edey and Williams command double teams inside practically every time they touch the ball. Williams had 13 points and 18 rebounds in just 24 minutes against Iowa on Friday. It was his 24th career double double — and he comes off the bench.
He just might be the best passing big man in the country, too.
"He's become a really great passer during his time here,'' said Stefanovic, who is shooting 46 percent from threes. "He's learned to be patient and make good decisions. And he's also very good at knowing where all his shooters are. When he's gets a lot of attention, you know as a shooter that you're going to get good looks.''
Williams is still considered one of the best centers in the country, but he's coming off the bench anyway. He's scored 1,066 points in career — and he does what Painter asks of him. If that means coming off the bench, then he'll come off the bench.
It's about big picture, not HIS picture.
"I dedicated myself and I sacrificed to get my body right to prepare for teams like this and moments like this,'' Williams said of this special Purdue team. "I didn't come here and say 'I'm going to score 1,000 points.' I came in and said I want to be a part of something special and I want to win. I want to be seen with a group of guys that I cared about the game they love just as much as I do."
Painter is impressed with how Williams has handled all of this. He's also not surprised by it.
"I don't think he agrees with it, but he buys into it," Painter said. "I don't want the guys who come off the bench to agree. I want them to be professional about it.
"I want them to understand the big picture about it and then go out and play. It's not personal. But now you've still got to go out and play well. You've got to have a clear mind. And their job when they came to Purdue was not to start, their job when they came to Purdue is to help us win."
As a great passer, Williams makes everyone around him better, which is a coach's dream. That's why Purdue is ranked among the nation's leaders in multiple offensive categories.
"For guys that can really see the court and pass sometimes they probably thread the needle a little bit too much he because they see things other people don't," Painter said.
"He has one of the best feels of anybody I've been around in terms of passing and knowing what's going on. Sometimes he overdoes it. He had two layups tonight and he's so unselfish, he's passing the basketball out when he needs to just take those layups and score the ball. He's been great for us."
All the pieces are in place for a nice, long run. But as Purdue fans know all to well through all the years, through Gene Keady's long run and now Painter's success over nearly two decades, nothing can be taken for granted.
Because bad things can happen, and Purdue fans know that all too well. They've been contenders before — and something usually happens.
Robbie Hummel has been there before
Robbie Hummel spent five years at Purdue as a player from 2007 to 2012 and was part of the "Baby Boilers'' that had national championship aspirations, too. In 2010, they were 24-3 and ranked No. 3 in the country and seemed primed to win it all with a loaded team led by Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.
But on Feb. 24 that season, Hummel tore up his knee at Minnesota, and Purdue eventually lost in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Despite winning a school record 29 games, a Final Four trip eluded them.
Hummel, who's now a basketball analyst, knows all about the burden of expectations. He knows all about being confident without being overconfident.
He also knows all about the journey, with a lofty goal clearly in reach. It doesn't just happen overnight. It's a learning process. He learned it, and he knows this current rendition of the Boilers have learned it, too.
"That's a huge part of it, learning from experience,'' Hummel said. "I know when I was in school my sophomore year, I thought we had some losses that really helped us the next year (2010). We lose to Duke by a ton at home and they won the title the next year, and we lost to an Oklahoma team close in the NIT. That Oklahoma team had Blake (Griffin), and they were really good.
"I thought that those losses really helped us the next year. You go through experiences, and I think Purdue, with that North Texas game last year in the (first round of the) NCAAs, learned from that too, and that will help down the road. Expectations, that's just part of it. That's what you want as a player when you have a really good team. But you have to consume yourself in getting better every day. It's a long season.''
Painter's 2019 team also came close to getting to the Final Four, riding Carsen Edwards on a miracle run to the Elite Eight, where a game with Virginia slipped away in the final second. Purdue came up short, and Virginia wound up winning the national title.
Painter is in his 17th year at Purdue after also playing there for Gene Keady — who also had a great career despite no Final Four appearance. He's seen a lot too.
"They've got the right guy for the job in Coach Painter for sure,'' Hummel said. "It's definitely a process, and this is the natural progression. This is the year, the year they've been pointing to.
"I see it, totally, as a potential Big Ten champion and Final Four team. They can definitely win it all. They might have the best collections of bigs in the country with Trevion and Zach, and Jaden Ivey is a real, real talent. When you watch him move, there's no one looks like him on the court.''
Hummel thinks that if Purdue can make shots consistently from three-point range this year, that they can beat anybody.
"Shooting is going to be the key, which I guess you can say about a lot of teams. With Sasha, and Brandon Newman and Eric Hunter, they've got guys who are more than capable, and they can open up the middle. If they can make threes, they are going to be really really good.''
Hummel thinks Painter doesn't get the credit he deserves because he hasn't made a Final Four yet in his career. He's really hoping that changes this year.
"I would be so happy for him,'' Hummel said. "I feel awful that every time we've been close, something horrible has happened, whether that's with Isaac (Haas, who injured his elbow during the NCAA Tournament in 2018) or my knee, or that crazy finish in the Virginia game.
"He deserves it. He's one of the best coaches in all of college basketball Unfortunately in this sport, sometimes you get validated for not making it to the Final Four. It's not like it's an easy place to get to. A lot of coaches can say that, and we saw it with Coach Keady. It is a tough place to get. He's certainly deserving, and the Virginia game hurts because he was knocking on the door. He was so close. But this team, they can get him there.
Taking it one step at a time
Purdue has beaten four top-40 teams — North Carolina, Villanova, Florida State and Iowa — already this season, and they're the only team in America that's done so.
There are many more obstacles ahead, of course. There are still 19 Big Ten games to go — 13 of which are against top-40 teams — and even a nonconference test with N.C. State in Brooklyn on Sunday.
"When we were ranked No. 7 in the country at the beginning of the season, that was nice but that's not our goal,'' Stefanovic said. "It is not our goal to finish No. 7 in the country. It's not to finish No. 6 either, or even No. 2 this week.
"It's early December, so being No. 1 right doesn't get you anything other than a pat on the back, maybe. It's nice, because it's great for Purdue and great to have the country talking about us. But I think that's the joy of having such an experienced team. We're confident, but we also know we haven't won anything yet. This team is all about getting better every day. And that's our goal every day — just getting better.''
There are no ticker-tape parades on Dec. 6 for being No. 1 in the country. No trophies or gold medals, either. It's just a nice honor for a week. To get another week at No. 1 means continuing to win games.
Rinse and repeat. Every week. It's all about building toward the madness of March and, in this case, early April.
"You can be ranked high early in the season, but it doesn't mean you end there,'' Painter said Friday night after the win over Iowa. "Our goal is to end there, and be one of the better teams going into the NCAA Tournament and making a long run there. We know that's not easy.
"That's your job as a coach to try to stay process-based and to get those guys to function a little bit better than we did tonight. Sometimes it takes a loss to learn some valuable lessons. We learned some things in a win tonight, so I guess that's a good thing.''
Related stories on Purdue basketball
- BOILERS RANKED NO. 1: For the first time ever, the Purdue Boilermakers are ranked No. 1 in the country in this week's Associated Press top-25 poll. CLICK HERE
- ASHA LIVE! MONDAY AT MAD MUSHROOM: Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic is back in the chair for Episode 6 of the Sasha Live! podcast on Monday night at Mad Mushroom Pizza in West Lafayette. There's plenty to talk about, including the expected ascension to the top of the AP top 25 poll on Monday. Come watch the show live, or online. Links are in the story. CLICK HERE
- BOILERS TOP IOWA: Even though Purdue let most of a big second-half lead slip away, the Boilermakers hung on to beat Iowa 77-70 on Friday night in their Big Ten regular season opener. CLICK HERE
- SURVIVING IOWA PRESS: Purdue struggled with Iowa's full-court pressure down the stretch, turning the ball over too much and allowing the Hawkeyes to get back in the game. An issue to be concerned with? CLICK HERE