Yesterday, Jaren Jackson Jr. committed to Coach Izzo and the Michigan State Spartan basketball team. For those in East Lansing, this had to feel something like vindication and the righting of wrongs done in summer past. After Caleb Swanigan’s surprising turn to West Lafayette, there was a buzz about the Purdue basketball program. We hadn’t landed a player with that kind resume since Coach Painter took over. It felt like the program was at a turning point. We were now a player with the top recruits out of Indiana, no matter how many stars were assigned to them.
Going into yesterday, the rumor was that Purdue was the favorite to land another top recruit in the nation in Jaren Jackson Jr.. Only, as we got closer to the commitment, the rumors started to shift and they all started pointing at Jackson going to the Spartans. As we learned, these whispers were correct. Purdue took up the familiar position again of just missing out on the kid that would change the program.
Kids don’t change programs. Kevin Durant chose to go to Texas for one year. It didn’t change the program. The Longhorns struggled with Durant and after him. Despite all their advantages and money, despite landing a once in a generation talent, despite all that they were still stuck in Big 12 disappointment. Until Shaka.
Shaka Smart constructed the VCU basketball team that upset the Boilermakers and made a run to the final four. Now he’s doing what one player couldn’t and changing the Texas basketball program into something. And he will turn them into something because that’s how College Basketball works.
It’s almost impossible to say Purdue lost Jaren this last March after another disappointing loss in the tournament. The same day Purdue was upset, Izzo’s Spartans were also left stunned and defeated. But make no mistake, we lost Jaren Jackson Jr. in Marches.
And it’s frustrating because we’ve been at this intersection for so long. We know where we want to be. We know the direction and we’ve turned our turn signal on, but we just can’t find the opening to get there. We’re not alone.
The NCAA tournament is chaos and built for crazy things to happen. It is supposed to give every team the same chance to win the same trophy. It is a collection of win or go home games instead of say a series like the NBA. It is not designed to guarantee the best team win the championships.
But College Basketball parity is not a thing. It does not exist. Cinderella teams and late season runs are all a myth, clips in a commercial we remember incorrectly.
Here’s a list of all the coaches that have won a championship in the 2000’s:
Jay Wright, Mike Krzyzewski, Kevin Ollie, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jim Calhoun, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self, Billy Donovan, Billy Donovan, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Gary Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo
That’s 17 Title games going to 11 different schools. The least power house of those schools was this last year’s title game where Villanova pulled off an incredible finish to give Wright his first title. But just look again. You know all of those names. It’s not a mystery. We know who the great ones are, and they just don’t go anywhere.
So in this game of recruiting it came down to one simple truth: Izzo is more than Painter. As Jaren told ESPN, “When you have a hall of fame coach like Tom Izzo, it makes a statement about the program.”
And this is also why we’re so frustrated. Matt Painter is a very good coach. He has now rebuilt this program up twice in rapid succession by recruiting players who were better than their rankings and creating a defensive-minded team that competes night in and night out against the best conference in the country. He’s hit on some surprises and built-up players into more than they should be. He got Haas and Swanigan to commit late, and for the most parts, our players show consistent improvement year to year.
But he just hasn’t won in March. Hummel’s knee cost him a final four, and near upsets just don’t hold when talking legacy. But Painter has his teams so close, in so many years, and he just hasn’t been able to get them over the top. Is it so hard to think that one of these years that by luck or skill or randomness, that Purdue goes deep into March and Painter’s one omission on his resume is now gone? Painter is not Izzo, no one really is, but Painter could absolutely be Bo Ryan. Bo Ryan’s teams didn’t really have consistent tournament success until the last few years.
And now Bo Ryan is gone, but the Badgers are still reaping the rewards of those late runs. Pulling in recruits and athletes that are pushing them into national contention every year. Bo Ryan’s longevity and consistency did not always excite, but his teams always competed. They were always so close to breaking through that it felt like vindication when they did. And the thing about college basketball, once you break through, it’s a lot easier to stay.
From 2006 to 2013, the Badgers were 9-8 in the tournament and never got past the sweet 16. In that same time, Purdue’s record was 8-6. Purdue’s not that far from where Wisconsin found themselves, on the cusp of something, but still on the outside. Izzo’s Spartans are already there. That’s why the Biggie recruitment was so shocking. We got the big time recruit before we were supposed to.
Make no mistake about it, Coach Painter let the Baby Boiler teams fall apart because he couldn’t fill the holes in the roster with the right recruits. He’s also knocked it out of the park the last three years to turn this team into a potential monster. Purdue is at the door, and Painter absolutely has to get them inside. There’s more Jaren Jackson Jr.’s out there and if Purdue is gonna really play with the big boys, we’re gonna have to start winning games in March. This team is no longer young and encouraging. They are experienced and talented. They should be favorites in the Big 10, and a top 15 team all year.
And if they break through in March, we’ll start to think of Jaren Jackson’s choice as an aberration and not the normal state of things. In the end, a single player doesn’t destroy or built a program.
The fear and excitement of this season are one in the same: This is the turning point. This is the season we find out if Painter belongs in the top echelon of coaches and our program takes a leap or if we are cursed to live in this place of in-between.
The pieces are in place. The games are scheduled. A legacy is at stake.