Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey boxes out a defender. Purdue center Zach Edey (15) boxes out Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins during their game, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.

Purdue is in an unenviable spot, and that’s unfortunate.

At first glance, everything looks great. The No. 2-ranked Boilermakers (17-2, 6-2) are having another great college basketball regular season. Only defending national champion Connecticut (17-2) is ranked higher in the polls. Only Houston (16-2) is rated higher in the Ken Pomeroy Ratings. They’re on their way to securing another 1-seed for the NCAA Tournament.

Purdue has the nation’s most unstoppable force in Zach Edey, the reigning Naismith College Player of the Year. Coach Matt Painter’s squad might be better than the one that finished last year 29-6. But no matter how many victories they rack up, nothing truly matters for these Boilermakers now. Fairly or not, they will be judged by what they do in March.

That’s the sobering reality for a program that suffered arguably the worst NCAA Tournament loss in history. Once Edey decided to return for his senior season, the storyline for 2023-24 was set: Can Purdue follow Virginia’s Redeem Team path to win the national championship?

In March 2018, Virginia became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed when it was shocked by UMBC. The following season, the Cavaliers won it all. In March 2023, Purdue became the second 1- seed to fall to a 16, stunned by Fairleigh Dickinson, which didn’t even win its conference tournament and only got into the field of 68 due to a technicality.

The ghosts of 2023’s failure will haunt the 2023-24 team until there are significant victories in March. It’s a shame. These Boilermakers and their fans won’t get to fully enjoy the current success without thinking about the previous letdown. This season, Purdue went undefeated in non-conference play, including an impressive run to the Maui Invitational championship with victories over then-No. 11 Gonzaga, then-No. 7 Tennessee, and then-No. 4 Marquette. The Boilermakers also defeated then-No. 1 Arizona in Indianapolis.

The only losses for Purdue have come on the road: in overtime at Northwestern and at Nebraska. But since that setback, it has blown out its past three opponents, highlighted by an 87-66 destruction of Indiana. It was the Boilermakers’ largest margin of victory over their archrival in Bloomington since 1934.

Edey has been breathtakingly dominant. Since the Nebraska loss, he’s averaging 31 points and 17 rebounds. No Purdue player has scored at least 30 points in three straight games since Glenn Robinson during the 1993-94 season.

The 7-foot-4 Edey is a big reason Purdue is No. 2 in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.

“If they play their best,” Rob Dauster said on The Field Of 68: After Dark podcast. “If you get the best Purdue version that you can get, I don’t think anybody can beat them. I don’t think there is an answer that anybody has for Zach Edey.”

That, of course, is the biggest if. And while past performance is not indicative of future results, the Boilermakers’ recent NCAA history is held against them. In the past three NCAA Tournaments, they have been upset. In 2021 in Indianapolis, No. 4 Purdue was bounced out by No. 13 North Texas in the first round. In 2022, No. 3 Purdue dropped a Sweet Sixteen matchup to No. 15 Saint Peter’s. And, we all know what happened last year.

Purdue is simply the team you do not trust. That label will remain until Painter’s program gets to the Final Four. Hard to believe that the Boilermakers haven’t been to the national semifinals since 1980. Is there a reason for optimism now? Yes. Purdue is shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range, which is No. 11 in the nation. That means the Boilermakers have balance with guards like Braden Smith, Lance Jones, and Fletcher Loyer when Edey is double or triple-teamed.

This might be enough for Purdue to finally break through in March. But no one will believe in the Boilermakers until that happens.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.