This one stings.
In fact, our friend Aneesh over at Boiled Sports said it best.
Painter: please come we'll do anything you won't play center i'll fly halfway around the world— Aneesh Ramaswamy (@aneeshswamy) September 15, 2016
Izzo: yeah we got space for you i guess
And really, that is it when it comes to Purdue basketball. We’re a great school. We’re back in the top 25 regularly and spent an entire season there last year. We went 17-1 at home (really 17.5-0.5 because it was only an awful second half vs. Iowa that prevented a perfect season). We won 26 games and matching those numbers is pretty much expected this coming season. That is the envy of more than 300 Division I programs. Mackey Arena is a fortress few teams want to face, making Purdue one of the better teams in college basketball.
It is always March, however.
That is what frustrates every Purdue fan I know. It is why Indiana fans hold superiority over us. It is why Purdue can get excellent basketball players in recruiting like A.J. Hammons, E’Twaun Moore, and more, but it struggles to get the truly elite like Gary Harris, Tyler Zeller, and now Jaren Jackson. Purdue can come close to landing these difference maker players, but aside from Swanigan (who is still on campus and can help change this perception) Purdue basketball always comes up short.
The difference? March.
From November to February Purdue is pretty much unmatched when it comes to a Big Ten basketball pedigree. It is tied with Indiana with 22 regular season conference titles for the most in the league. It has a winning record against every team in the Big Ten except Ohio State (the Buckeyes lead 89-85) and Maryland (The Terps lead the very young series 2-1). No one wants to play in Mackey Arena except for Purdue because of the dungeon of noise it is for opposing teams.
But there is always March.
Like it not, in college basketball you are judged by what you do in March, and Purdue often does nothing in March. In the last three NCAA Tournament games Purdue has played it has had both the lead and the basketball with less than 30 seconds to go in regulation.
It has lost all three games.
Before that, it was missed opportunity after missed opportunity leading all the way back to the last Final Four in 1980. I won’t rehash the rest of the history here because we all know it. Everyone knows it. It is why we are Purdue instead of “Purdue!” (said with breathless bluebloodedness).
Purdue is great in the regular season but can’t get it done in March. That elusive breakthrough is what is preventing a recruiting breakthrough, and, in a symbiotic way, the recruiting breakthrough is preventing the March breakthrough.
We all knew this was going to be a critical recruiting season for Matt Painter. He was armed with a fistful of scholarships, a good team to set an example, and four players inside the state borders that are ranked in the top 31 by Rivals. His class could have been better than the 2007 superclass that sent three players to the NBA. After Jackson’s commitment to MSU he will go 0-for-4. Kris Wilkes and Paul Scruggs are still on the board, but both have ruled out Purdue and Scruggs, in fact, has physically fled the state. Malik IWlliams has already jumped to Louisville.
So what now? Painter still has a load of scholarships. There are still several very good players out there like Nojel Eastern, Xavier Tillman, and Evan Battey. If he gets those three and a big it is still a solid class that will at least sustain where Purdue currently stands. Anyone else in college basketball would be fine with that.
But at Purdue we exist in sort of a basketball purgatory. Men’s basketball is too good to just ignore like at most SEC schools. We know it is good enough to compete and be a top 25. We know we can play with anyone in America, but that only heightens our excitement before we see it fall short of breaking into that top 10 or top 5 level. That’s been the case for 35 years now with Purdue basketball.
This year presents an excellent chance to break out of that purgatory. It may be a one-time-only chance, however. There are still solid prospects out there that can be a next generation core (and will have to be given the roster losses Purdue could have after this season). The team as built now, however, is good enough to challenge for a Big Ten title and make an NCAA run. It is going to be a top 15-20 team again in the preseason polls. It has the pieces needed for a run, and might even be more consistent on offense than last season by plugging in a more consistent scoring threat than Ray D. was.
Can they get it done in March, however?
As we have seen, 26 wins in the regular season won’t get it done. A Big Ten regular season title won’t get it done. I hate to boil down 4.5 months of work into a couple of games on a neutral floor, but that is the real difference maker here. Only. march. Matters. Painter needs to land some of his remaining top targets to have a good class with room for 2018 and 2019 (with several in-state players again being among the nation’s best) and he needs that March breakthrough. This team can do it, but like we have been for 35 years, we’re still waiting.