After another embarrassing ouster, is Purdue overdue for a philosophical shift?

COLUMBUS, Ohio – On the eve of what turned out to be the worst night of Matt Painter’s career, the Purdue head coach met with the media for a pregame press conference on Thursday in the afternoon. The initial question came from a reporter who primarily covers Ohio State, asking Painter about navigating the ups and downs, about how hard it is to stick with core beliefs when a season — or seasons- begins to spiral. The writer seemed to want some perspective with which to frame Chris Holtmann’s disappointing year with the Buckeyes.

The ever-friendly Painter, who suffered back-to-back losing seasons in 2012-13 and 2013-14, went on a soliloquy about the importance of identifying “winning ways” when building a roster. A team can never have enough players or coaches who care about winning, Painter said, which is why the Boilermakers have pursued productivity over talent on the recruiting trail. He typically favors prospects who seem like they can mesh with Purdue’s culture.

“Your own personal convictions about how a game should be played or how a program should be run have nothing to do with an opponent,” Painter said that day, “they have nothing to do with the style or anything of that nature.”

Although he did not know it at the time, Painter would return to the dais the following evening immersed in exactly the philosophical dilemma he had been asked to describe. His Boilermakers, a No. 1 seed in the South Region, became just the second team in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed in the opening round. A 63-58 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, the non-traditionalists and non-Northeastern Conference champions, slapped Painter with a third straight loss to a double-digit seed that opened their program to criticism sparks from their repeated failures against lower-level opposition.

Friday’s stumble against Fairleigh Dickinson was preceded by an embarrassing fall to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in 2022, which was preceded by a shocking overtime collapse against the 13th seed, North Texas in 2021. Five of Purdue’s last 10 have been cut by NCAA Tournament appearances. teams ranked 11th or higher. An 11 seed, 12 seed, 13 seed, 15 seed, and 16 seed all topped the Boilermakers since 2011.

“It’s tough,” Painter said after losing to FDU. “It’s a very difficult thing. We’ve worked really hard and done things the right way in our program. And I think six years in a row we’ve been a top five seed. And that’s all you try to do. Just you try to fight for the best possible position. And now we get in the best possible position and this happens. And obviously it hurts. It hurts a lot.”

[How Fairleigh Dickinson toppled Purdue with a perfect game plan and ‘a chip on our shoulder’]

Few, if any, coaches across the country are more universally respected and liked than Painter, who has won 68 percent of his games since taking over for the legendary Gene Keady in 2005. Colleague Painter at Michigan State, Tom Izzo, described it. as college basketball’s “new generation” during a news conference Saturday, the day after Purdue was downed by Fairleigh Dickinson, and said the 52-year-old has done an “amazing job” winning four season titles regular Big Ten. , two Big Ten Tournament titles and receiving the league’s Coach of the Year award four times in a 15-year span. The 2022–23 campaign marked the first time Painter captured both the regular season and tournament titles in the same season.

But Painter’s longtime infatuation with building his teams around low-level scorers calls into question whether he’s really putting Purdue in the “best possible position” during an era of college basketball when high-level guard play is lacking. most valuable doubt, especially in the postseason.

On a macro level, the Big Ten’s obsession with fielding traditional centers is one of the reasons the conference has failed to win a national title since Michigan State hung up the nets in 2000, and it’s worth noting the 6-foot-7 small forward Morris Peterson. (16.8 ppg) led Izzo’s team in scoring. Counting this collection of Spartans, there have been 16 Big Ten teams that have reached the Final Four over the past 23 years. The only center anchors were Indiana with Jared Jeffries in 2002 (6-foot-11; 15 ppg), Ohio State with Greg Oden in 2007 (7-foot; 15.7 ppg), Ohio State with Jared Sullinger in 2012 (6-foot-9; 17.5 ppg) and back-to-back Wisconsin teams with Frank Kaminsky in 2014-15 (7-foot-7; 18.8 ppg). The average height of all leading scorers who led a Big Ten school to the Final Four was 6-foot-6 during that span.

And on a broader scale, only two of the last 13 national champions have relied on a center as their top scorer:

— The first was a 2011-12 Kentucky team that surrounded freshman Anthony Davis (14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds per game) with six additional players who spent time in the NBA: Doron Lamb (13 .7 points), Terrence Jones (12.3 points). ), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11.9 points), Marquis Teague (10 points), Darius Miller (9.9 points) and Kyle Wiltjer (5 points).

— The second was a 2014-15 Duke team flanked by freshman Jahlil Okafor (17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) with a supporting cast that included seven future NBA players: Quinn Cook (15 .3 points), Justise Winslow (12.6 points), Tyus. Jones (11.8 points), Amile Jefferson (6.1 points), Grayson Allen (4.4 points), Semi Ojeleye (3 points) and Marshall Plumlee (2.2 points).

On a micro level, Purdue’s line of high-level center production under Painter matches the program’s damaging losing streak. Four of Painter’s five losses against double-digit seeds came against rosters whose leading scorers were old-school big men:

— His 2011 team that lost to No. 11 VCU was led by 6-foot-10 JaJuan Johnson with 20.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

— Their 2016 team that lost to No. 12 Little Rock was led by 7-foot-1 AJ Hammons with 15 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

— Their 2021 team that lost to No. 13 North Texas was led by 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams with 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

— His 2022 team that lost to No. 15 Saint Peter’s was led by 6-foot-4 guard Jaden Ivey with 17.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Zach Edey was second in scoring with 14.4 points per game.

— Their 2023 team that lost to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson was led by 7-foot-4 Edey with 22.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.

[Purdue’s locker room whiteboard takes punishment after loss to Fairleigh Dickinson]

The most recent upset against FDU was by far the most baffling, strangest, most inexplicable for a team that won 29 games and was the class of a league that received eight Tournament bids of the NCAA. Edey had scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against an undersized opponent whose starting center, if Ansley Almonor can be called that, was just 6-foot. And with the game reeling in the waning moments, swarms of Fairleigh Dickinson defenders collapsed toward the point to disrupt or deflect nearly every inbounds pass the Boilermakers threw in Edey’s direction.

Falling to the top 16 provided the harshest reminder that regular-season wins don’t equate to postseason results. Landing on the wrong side of history could be enough of an impetus for Painter to reevaluate.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in this position as a No. 1 seed,” Painter said, “and we get here and we don’t take advantage of that opportunity. But they’re good guys. They work hard. You can get a lot of people to see it in a lot of different ways. , but when you’re the one playing and training and you’ve invested the time, it’s very hard to take.

“But like I said, we’re the ones who have to sit back. We’re the ones who expect to have to be better for it.”

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