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Wither, Matt Painter? The Curious Case of the Struggling Former B1G COTY

Three years ago Matt Painter could do no wrong. Now, the seat is getting warm in West Lafayette.

Bo Ryan consistenly gets Wisconsin intot eh Big Ten's top 4 with a lot of turnover, but Matt Painter is not.
Bo Ryan consistenly gets Wisconsin intot eh Big Ten's top 4 with a lot of turnover, but Matt Painter is not.
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest series of days in the history of Hammer & Rails came in late March 2011, when the University of Missouri was courting Matt Painter. Purdue was coming off of its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, had played in two Sweet 16's, and had won a Big Ten Championship. If not for That Night in The Barn, it could have been so much more, too.

The move to Missouri seemed to be a lateral move at best. Missouri is a school that thinks it is a basketball school, but it is not. They have never even made a Final Four and consistently think they are better than they actually are. Had they succeeded in stealing Painter from his alma mater it was going to be a serious blow to Purdue basketball. For a few days everyone here collectively lost their shit, then rejoiced when it was announced coach was staying.

He got a huge raise, expanded compensation of assistants, and it was thought that the sky was the limit for the program. I was not alone in thinking that multiple Big Ten titles and a Final Four or two were pre-ordained.

Fast forward almost three years now. Things have not gone exactly as planned:

  • Purdue has made one NCAA Tournament, in 2012, and has won only one game in the last two Big Ten Tournaments. So far this season an NCAA bid is unlikely.
  • Purdue is 51-38 overall and 21-22 in the Big Ten. Since Robbie Hummel left, Purdue drops to 29-25 and 11-10.
  • Purdue is a dismal 3-20 against ranked teams, beating only Michigan in 2012, Illinois in 2013, and Wisconsin in 2013.
  • Purdue has been hit by a rash of transfers including John Hart (IUPUI), Kelsey Barlow (Illinois-Chicago), Sandi Marcius (DePaul), Anthony Johnson (Northern Illinois), Jacob Lawson (Appalachian State), Patrick Bade (the football team), and Donnie Hale (Bellarmine).
  • As a result of the transfers, only one player from the 2009 class (D.J. Byrd) and none from the 2011 class finished their eligibility at Purdue with the basketball program.
  • In early season tournaments, where NCAA resumes are made, Purdue is 4-6 and just 2-5 the last two years in the 2K Sports Classic and Old Spice Classic, beating such powerhouses as Siena and Hofstra while losing to Oregon State and Washington State, possibly the two worst major conference programs in the nation.

Let me make one thing clear: Unless Matt Painter burns Harry's to the ground or is caught taking a final for A.J. Hammons, he is not getting fired this season. He has earned far more goodwill with the program than Danny Hope and Darrell Hazell have with the football program. That has not stopped several comments in recent posts from cropping up calling for coach Painter's head or saying we should have let him walk to Missouri.

This does not completely absolve Painter of blame, however. Boilerdowd of Boiled Sports put out a great post on the subject earlier this month:

I don't blame players for being who they are. I do blame kids for being bad kids (breaking the law, fighting with teammates, getting bad grades, etc.) But, I blame coaches for poorly-assessing talent...I blame the coaching staff for not developing players...I blame the head coach for not figuring out a rotation...I blame the coach for not benching players when their heads look to be out of the game...I blame the coach when it seems he won't go to war for his players.  And THAT might be Painter's biggest problem in my opinion...the other stuff could be glossed over, but right now, Purdue's lack of continuity all comes back to the coach, for a myriad of reasons.

Dowd also does not call for Painter to be fired, and I agree with him. Matt Painter is still the same coach that built a team that came within a torn ACL at the worst possible time of making a Final Four run if not winning the whole damn thing. On paper, that team had three of the best players this program has ever seen, but up and down the roster, in terms of stars, this year's team has more talent. In addition to JJ, Rob, and E'Twaun that 2009-10 team had a lot of players that, like Purdue players of old, exceeded their individual talent to play well as a team. It was truly a team Big Ten championship, not just JJ, Rob, and E'Twaun's. For example:

  • Chris Kramer was the senior leader that comes along once in a generation. He was a force of nature that imposed his collective will on the entire roster.
  • Keaton Grant evolved from a main option as a sophomore into the guy teams forgot about... until he hurt them because he was still a solid player.
  • Kelsey Barlow and D.J. Byrd made solid contributions as freshmen.
  • Lewis Jackson was a true floor general and distributor that picked his spots to attack the basket instead of forcing things.Purdue had 7 games with him back from a foot injury and was playing some of the best basketball I have ever seen a Purdue team play with him.
  • Ryne Smith came into his own a three-point threat.
  • Even John Hart had two huge moments. First, he had the Illinois game where he wasn't even in the scorebook before coming off the bench to score in double figures. He also hit the three to finally stop Minnesota's big run after the Hummel injury in That Game.
  • Finally, Mark Wohlford as a walk-on was a steadying presence.

Of those players, only JJ, Rob, E'Twaun, and Byrd were rated a four-star players.

Four years later, Painter is still the same coach and he has better talent. Terone Johnson, Rapheal Davis, A.J. Hammons, Ronnie Johnson, Bryson Scott, Basil Smotherman, and Kendall Stephens are all four star players. There are four seniors on the roster if you count Errick Peck and Sterling Carter as opposed to three in 2010 (Wohlford, Kramer, and Grant), so there should be veteran leadership. For whatever reason, however, this team is not meshing the same way that the 2010 team did. RJ is pressing and forcing things offensively much more than LewJack ever did. TJ is a solid player, but he is not the senior leader Kramer was (though few are). Stephens, Smotherman, and Scott are contributing more as freshmen than Byrd, Barlow, and Bade, but they have to. Hammons and Simpson are inconsistent, with Hammons looking like a Shaq-esque force one night and completely disappearing the next.

If you read Painter's comments you can tell he is frustrated. Look at this comment on the foul situation from the Wisconsin game:

"Our positioning on defense was poor, so we're behind plays and so we foul. Then our guys complain about the calls when in reality I don't think they missed too many. I thought the officials were pretty good. We just got behind plays and when you get behind plays, you're going to react to things, you're going to reach, you're going to try to block and you're going to put them to the free throw line too much."

Therein lies part of the issue. This team does not play Purdue's in-your-jersey defense and does not play smart, fundamental basketball. Part of that comes from the fact that defense has been outlawed due to the new rules, but it also does not help when players like Hammons make three dumb fouls (that are barely fouls anyway) in less than two minutes of first half play. Purdue also does not have a lockdown defender like a Kramer or a Barlow. We cannot erase a player like Painter's best teams did. Kramer was good enough that he took on 7-footer in Colton Iverson in That Game and won. Much of that was ability, but it was also an attitude.

That 2010 team also had an attitude about it. It wasn't quite swagger, because it wasn't cocky, but it was confidence. That confidence came from everyone being in the right roles and everyone trusting everyone else. Coach Painter has not been able to establish that for two years now, partially because he keeps messing with rotations. He has messed with rotations, however, because he can't seem to find one that clicks.

Another criticism I have had is that he is set on each player playing a specific role and that doesn't change. Travis Carroll plays at the five because he has always been a five. He doesn't play at the four, where his ability to be a jump shooter can thrive more and his defensive liabilities in the post can be hidden. We have seen some change with Jay Simpson playing some minutes with Hammons at the same time, mostly to use his excellent passing abilities, but Painter has, for the most part, remained static so far.

It is very troubling that we're in year three since the big contract and we have yet to see the improvement and results such a paycheck should produce. With that paycheck and the sheer talent Purdue has there shouldn't even be a question that Purdue is a tournament team. Yes, they are still young, but the nature of the college game is youth. If you're not a lottery pick in your first two years it is unlikely you're going to be one, so players that were once thought of as high school standouts turn into potential busts in a hurry. Purdue and Painter have also won with youth before, so it should, in theory, be able to do so again with even more talent.

This season can still be salvaged, but it is a longshot. Next year is the season where the heat will really be on Painter if there is not success. Not only will that team be loaded with talent (Haas replaces TJ as the 8th four-star and there will be three 3-stars) it will essentially be the 2015-16 team as well unless someone leaves early. There will be no scholarship seniors on next year's roster, so what you see is the bulk of what you will get for the next two seasons.

There are still a ton of questions though:

  • Who can be that Kramer/Hummel-type leader that has the team take on his personality?
  • If consistency has been an issue with this year's sophomores for two years, can it magically come in the third year?
  • If it doesn't come, how will the older players react if the young guns push them?
  • Where will that famed Purdue defense come from? Scott and Smotherman have shown flashes, but can they be consistent on offense?
  • Who becomes the go-to scorer? We need a Red Button like E'Twaun in the worst way.
  • Can Painter finally break the returning players of dumb mistakes and poor free throw shooting? I trust in Painter that he sees this and is working on it, but it continues to not be fixed.

Expectations will be higher next year, but they should be. Painter is getting paid to have them that high and the collective stars and talent say they should be, mostly because we have had higher expectations with less talent and the same coach. At some point the cycle of rise, challenge for a Big Ten title (or win one) and then fall short in March has to be broken and Purdue has to take that next step. I labeled the 2013 and 2014 classes collectively as "the Next Step" because those that came before them raised Purdue to the level of Sweet 16's and conference championships. Now, more should be expected.

Painter has built to that level and we have seen what he can do. The rest of this season and all of next season is basically his 2006 football season. If the 2009-10 season was the equivalent of The Fumble with the 2004 football program then next year is the equivalent of the 2006 season, where Purdue had a lot of returning pieces and favorable schedule, but did not take advantage before continuing the fall into the abyss it is currently in.

That is where Painter's 2014-15 season is. Purdue will have talent, depth, experience, and Matt Painter. If it continues to flounder with inconsistency and stupid mistakes, It might be time to look elsewhere.