When Purdue lost to North Florida I chalked it up to an anomaly. A young team was playing at home and was fatigued after Maui and such, while North Florida hit some big shot and made big plays.
When Purdue lost to Vanderbilt it was more concerning, but the Commodores played well and were at home, where it is difficult to beat them.
Even on Saturday, when Notre Dame blew Purdue out in the final 15 minutes, it could be explained as everything going wrong against a very efficient offensive team that is playing some damn good basketball right now. I told everyone not to panic.
Then Gardner Webb happened.
Last night I had to work covering a high school game. I listened to much of the first half on the drive up to Zionsville and got to the high school just as the teams went into halftime. Larry Clisby, whom I trust a lot more than myself, was pretty much disgusted when the Bulldogs used hustle and effort to tied it after trailing by as much as 13 in the first half.
While I did not get to watch or listen to the second half I was tracking on gametracker and it seemed like the same ugly story we have seen all too many times over the past three seasons. Purdue got outhustled, an opposing team shot well on the perimeter, and the Boilermaker offense went into a funk where it could not get a basket. That led to an 18 point deficit that is probably the lowest point for the program since the end of the Keady era.
While it is a good thing that the team finally showed some fight, led by the polarizing Bryson Scott, in giving themselves even a chance to tie in the final six seconds, the bigger issue is that it should have never gotten to that point. Gardner Webb played well, but as talented as Purdue is (and there is talent there) it should have never fallen behind by 18 team a team like Gardner Webb.
As Clisby said, it is all about effort. For far too long Purdue has been outhustled by nearly everyone and it leads to losses like last night. In the Missouri-BYU-NC State stretch that effort had returned, but for some reason is completely disappeared. While it is still at least partially on the players, this is almost a completely new team over the past two seasons. What is the common denominator?
We really need to ask what happened to him. His harshest critics will say he never achieved anything without the Baby Boilers, but that is not true. His second team had quite a turnaround to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game in 2007. The Baby Boilers were impressive, NBA-caliber players that overachieved, but they still had a supporting cast that played extremely well where everyone knew their roles. Coach Painter had a five year run where his teams made the NCAA Tournament and won at least one game while winning a Big Ten Tournament and a regular season Big Ten title.
But something drastically changed since then. In fact, I would argue it changed somewhere around February 28, 2011.
Why that date? Well, during the 2010-11 season the "experts" wrote off Purdue when Robbie Hummel was lost before the season started. Despite returning JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, Purdue's championship aspirations were dead. Purdue got off to a slow start with a non-conference loss to Richmond, but were 24-5 after beating Ohio State with E'Twaun's memorable 38 special and a 20-point win in East Lansing on February 27. Purdue was playing some damn good basketball at that point. A Big Ten title shared with Ohio State was possible with two games remaining in the regular season and a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament even sans Hummel was possible. Given how bizarre that tournament was with lowly regarded UConn winning it all over Butler in an ugly final, it is not a stretch to look back in hindsight and say that Purdue absolutely could have won the whole thing if it had kept playing the way it did against Ohio State and Michigan State.
But something had to have happened on February 28, 2011, because the program has not been the same since.
Two days after a 20-point win in East Lansing (and Michigan State rarely loses period in EL, let alone by 20 points) Purdue was home for senior day against an Illinois team it had easily beaten in Champaign. The Boilers struggled to win 75-67. It was odd because they didn't look right, but hey, we still won. No problem, right?
Within two weeks Purdue would go from a possible No. 1 seed to out of the tournament. The Boilers lost 67-65 to an awful Iowa team with a chance at a Big Ten title on the line. After sweeping Michigan State by double digits in each game during the season the Spartans easily beat Purdue 74-56 in a game that wasn't even that close in the Big Ten Tournament. We then beat a St. Peter's team that was probably worse than most 16 seeds before getting run off the court by VCU.
The Hummel-Smith-LewJack team then played well because of senior leadership and made the NCAAs, but then we've dropped off. Here is Purdue's record since February 28, 2011:
Rest of 2010-11 season: 2-3
That's a 63-56 record. The Big Ten mark is an even worse 25-31 with a 1-4 Big Ten Tourney record. Before that, if you take away his first team that was completely depleted, but still played very hard, Painter was on a 127-41 stretch that was pretty much the envy of the conference. It wasn't all The Hummel-Moore, Johnson trio, either. For much of that stretch they did not all play together because of injuries. There were also injuries to Lewis Jackson and, for shorter periods, Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer. Purdue was also at major disadvantage in the post during that time, but was still very successful.
The point I am trying to make is that yes there were excellent players there, but Painter still did a hell of a job coaching through some adversity. If Painter and the players are both to blame for the current mess they were both responsible for the previous success.
One can only speculate on what happened between those Michigan State and Iowa games. There was the infamous "Kelsey Barlow threw a ball rack at Ryne Smith" rumor. There was also the break-up of Painter's marriage. I don't know exactly what happened on February 28, 2011, but the truth is that Purdue looked far better before and far worse after with the same lineup. In terms of recruiting rankings Purdue brought in many of the same types of players too, but they did not mesh as well as before. Even then, the change was sudden. Purdue looked great on the 27th and awful on the 1st. there was also Painter's offseason look at Missouri, which got him a larger contract that has since not produced the results for the money it is worth.
So we're currently 8-5 with two bad home losses and two no shows against major conference teams. Is that talent there to turn it around, go at least 12-6 against a struggling Big Ten, and do SOMETHING with this year? Yes. Has Painter coached well in this league before against even worse adversity? Yes. Both of these are apparent and we have seen this very team play well against BYU and NC State, who are probably the second and third best teams we have played.
Will it happen? Well, that is a different story. Right now this team is completely lost, is lacking in effort on the court, and the coaching staff has not demonstrated it can turn things around. It would be a major (and pleasant) surprise if they did turn it around. Almost as sudden as whatever switch was flipped on February 28, 2011.