Purdue basketball making big strides as Team USA

Regardless of how the Purdue University men’s basketball team’s run as Team USA ends, the August trip has been a priceless gift.

It’s a gift of bonding, togetherness and good old fashioned practice that should form the foundation for a big post-Caleb Swanigan season ahead. Purdue went to Taipei for the World University Games as a team in transition – How would it look without everything revolving around “Biggie”? – and will return as a team with an identity.

Big Ten opponents may very well find out the theme for dealing with Purdue this winter will be “Keep up with the Edwardses.”

After beating Israel 111-107 in overtime Sunday, Team USA will face Serbia in the World University Games semifinals at 12:30 a.m. Eastern time Monday.

The win over Israel seemed to finalize Purdue’s identity, and source of power, for the 2017-18 season will lie in Carsen Edwards’ fearlessness, Vincent Edwards’ complete game and the Boilermakers’ overall versatility. They can still feed the basketball inside, with 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas the primary target in the post-Swanigan era. But they could end up being more effective, and challenging Michigan State’s presumed supremacy in the Big Ten, because of personality, mental toughness and cohesiveness, all of which have been honed in the August trip.

Wearing “USA” on a player’s jersey adds some weight, some responsibility and some pride that isn’t easy to replicate.

Team USA/Purdue survived and advanced from the quarterfinals because it was able to dig deep and persevere in the face of adversity, trailing late in the game and letting a chance for victory in regulation slip away. Ultimately, that game didn’t slip away, and no matter what lies ahead, it proved to this year’s team that it could rise to the occasion.

Carsen Edwards was incredible, as a leader and a fearless offensive player, in the win over Israel. He hit 11-of-22 shots (8-of-14 threes) and scored 36 points with four rebounds, a pair of assists and a pair of steals. He scored 18 points in the third quarter, a hot streak of offensive firepower that will be something for opponents to try to prevent this winter.

Yet he might not have been the best Edwards in that game.

Vincent Edwards scored 21 points with nine rebounds, six assists, two steals, a blocked shot and no turnovers. His zero turnovers in nearly 39 minutes of play, considering how often he had his hands on the ball, might have been his most impressive statistic. Vincent Edwards flirted with entering the NBA Draft, found out his stock wasn’t yet there, and returned to Purdue intent on improving as a player. He is well on his way to doing so.

P.J. Thompson scored 22 points (5-of-12 threes) with six rebounds, a fairly incredible performance on the boards considering he’s almost always the shortest player on the court. Dakota Mathias scored 16 points (4-of-8 threes) and Haas scored eight points with eight rebounds and four blocks. Team USA was 20 of 41 from three-point range.

“We were just able to grind it out,” coach Matt Painter said, “and our guys showed a lot of grit by getting defensive stops and making some free throws at the end.”

Grind it out. Get defensive stops. Make free throws. All of those factors are crucial to winning teams, but perhaps even more so for the best Purdue teams. Purdue has the best player in the league on occasion (Swanigan being the most recent), but usually the Boilermakers are most successful via the team concept.

An overseas trip, even in August, can loom priceless because there’s nothing like being on the road to bring a team together. They spend days and nights in each other’s company. They learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses and, perhaps more important, personalities. They learn to appreciate and trust.

Purdue has big shoes to fill with Swanigan gone. It won’t be one player who fills those shoes. It’ll take a cohesive team, which is what a run as Team USA is serving to solidify.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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