Many people will look at the score this morning and think that Purdue was completely outclassed. It is hard not to disagree when the final margin is 32 points. Kansas was clearly the better team and for the most part, Purdue never had an answer for their athleticism. It is what I was afraid of coming into the game. For all of Purdue’s strengths, the Boilers still struggle mightily against hyper-athletic teams.
When you look deeper, though, this was a game that was competitive into the second half, then flipped wildly in an instant.
That instant came with 15:55 left in the game.
To that point, Purdue had actually played the Jayhawks pretty even. There were no indications that a 32-point blowout was imminent. If you were a neutral party that had watched the first 24 minutes you would have seen that Purdue came out of the gate strong. We led 33-25 with roughly six minutes left in the first half and were shooting over 60%. Even the CBS commentary was impressed. Kansas then made a strong closing run to the half and led 47-40. They also had praise for Purdue afterward, as even they sounded stunned with how fast things turned.
Normally, you could write this off as the moment the blowout began, but this was different. Purdue was able to hang tough for the first four minutes of the second half thanks to some timely three-point shooting. Caleb Swanigan hit a pair of threes and P.J. Thompson added one. With 16:09 left Landen Lucas missed a jumper and Dakota Mathias got the rebound.
Here was Purdue’s chance. It had weathered the predictable Kansas storm, it seemed, and with a basket the game would be tied. If Purdue connected on its fourth three-pointer of the half the Boilers would even get the lead back. Purdue brought the ball down and got it to Swanigan. He was double-teamed, so he kicked it back out to Ryan Cline.
Now, if you could somehow freeze things and play out different scanrios based on what Cline does it would be interesting. What if he shoots, but merely misses? What if he shoots and scores? What if he rotates the ball around and sets up another play with plenty of time left on the shot clock? Does the game go any different? If Purdue scores here to tie, symbolically, it would have done a lot. It would have shown that Purdue survived a rough spot and was still right there. Maybe it spurs another Purdue run. Maybe it starts to unnerve Kansas because they had thrown a devastating punch and Purdue had recovered.
It might have only delayed the inevitable, too. The way Kansas played the final 16 minutes no one was beating them. Still, this was the moment. This is where Purdue could have made a statement. For 24 minutes Matt Painter had his team not only prepared, but it was right with one of the best teams in the nation.
What came next was a completely uncharacteristic unraveling of a team that had shown more poise this year than it had in many, many seasons.
Cline attempted to reload the post to Swanigan, but the pass was picked off by Josh Jackson. That led to a breakout where Frank Mason III found Devonte’ Graham for a wide open three-pointer. He buried it, and it started what turned into a 45-15 finishing kick for the Jayhawks.
That 45-15 run was astounding to watch, too. It was like a switch flipped on that one turnover by Cline and suddenly the Jayhawks could do no wrong and Purdue could do no right. We saw fragments of it before the turnover. Kansas ratcheted up its defensive pressure in the half court and it was preventing Purdue from getting the ball inside. Purdue hit some threes, which normally loosens things up for us and was a point that many people said we needed to do, but we were rattled a bit. Those early threes kept Purdue in it to the 53-51 mark. The Jayhawks disrupted Purdue’s offensive flow, however, and started causing turnovers.
It is almost like Kansas woke up on that Cline turnover and realized, “Hey, we’re just better than these guys.” They certainly showed it over the last 16 minutes. It was a fury of dunks and threes. Their ball movement was crisp and effective as they found open shooter after open shooter. There were still a few moments before the run really got going. Cline hit a three with 14:45 left to make it 58-54, but Mason scored 15 seconds later. The lead was only seven when Lagerald Vick picked off a lazy Carsen Edwards pass and went coast-to-coast for a highlight reel dunk with 12:11 to go.
The run really got going after Purdue’s next possession. Carsen Edwards got a good look at a three that touched every part of the rim before somehow popping out. Mason got the rebound, then went the length of the floor before finding Jackson for an open three that he nailed. It was a six point shift that made it 66-54 and basically ended the game with 11:38 left.
Purdue was never in it again after that point. It’s like Jackson’s three there completely unraveled what was left, and the last 11:38 saw Purdue look as bad as it has all season long. Offensively, Purdue managed three tip-ins of missed baskets and a Thompson runner in the final 14:45 after Cline’s three. That’s it. Kansas played impeccable defense that forced Purdue either into three-point attempts or turnovers. They adjusted to prevent Isaac Haas from even getting the ball after Haas had killed them in the first half. Faced with this, Purdue started making poor decisions and that only allowed Kansas to put on even more pressure.
On the other end of the floor Kansas went just completely apeshit. That’s really the only way to describe it. They went to a level that few teams in the history of college basketball can hope to slow down. It turns out that when you have a National Player of the Year, a top 5 draft pick, and a bunch of 4- and 5- star recruits you can look really, really, REALLY good when things are clicking. They were more than clicking for Kansas. We had seen similar moments in our own team over the course of the season where we just unleashed hell offensively on opponents. Well, it was our turn to have hell unleashed on us. No one is beating the Kansas team of the last 12 minutes. I don’t care how good you are. When they are moving the ball that well, functioning like one unit, and shooting as well as they did, no one can stand up to it.
And you could tell in Purdue’s body language, too. That was probably the most frustrating part of it. Purdue had hung in there early. It stayed with a great team for the majority of the game, but in those final 12 minutes Kansas went to another level that not only could Purdue not match, the Boilers themselves went a few levels backwards.
It was a helpless feeling watching that shift. The worst of it was between 14:45 and 4:19. That 10 minute stretch was completely different and unexpected from the 25 before it. Literally nothing worked for Purdue and everything worked for Kansas. Up to that point, it was a great ballgame, but you don’t get credit for hanging with Kansas for 25 minutes. That’s why the game is a full 40.
And really, this was on everyone. Cline was awful defensively. Mathias was a ghost. Carsen was just awful for the most part. Vince became Vincent. Those were four guys we absolutely needed to be on and they were off. The only question I have of Painter is why was he double-teaming Lucas in the paint, but that is not why Purdue lost, not when Kansas went thermonuclear. There is only so much you can do when a guy like Jackson is making plays like he is not even a member of the human species.
So what do we do now? The Painter haters were completely turgid last night and hit full release in that run. Nevermind that Kansas played out of its mind for that stretch. It was completely vindicating for them and we received multiple, “IT IS CLEAR THIS IS AS FAR AS PAINTER CAN GO!” and “MATT PAINTER IS 0-3 IN SWEET 16 GAMES!” tweets.
Seriously. If that’s what you’re going to do, you’re not going to be happy for a while because Painter is coaching this team for several years to come. If you’re convinced that this is as far as we can go then stop watching because you won’t have any joy if we reach this exact level again and if we do pass it most of the Painter haters still won’t be happy or give him any credit. He is going to be coach at Purdue next season. And the season after that. And the season after that. I feel bad for those that think we have reached our ceiling under Painter. To them we might as well never try again as long as we have him because it only means reaching the Sweet 16 and no further.
Do you know why I support Matt Painter? Because he will at least get other chances here in the Sweet 16. We’re going to get back here again under him, likely multiple times. Hell, with what Purdue has returning there is a very good chance it will be right here again in 365 days. The NCAA Tournament is enough of a crapshoot that just reaching the Sweet 16 should be the goal because anything can happen afterwards. If you get enough chances eventually you break through. Jay Wright didn’t make an Elite 8 until year 12 or a Final Four until year 15 of his career. He was a perennial underachiever until a year ago and now he is considered an Elite coach. he has only been past the second round with Villanova 4 times in 16 years. This proves the Tournament is a massive crapshoot.
Let’s look at all three of Painter’s Sweet 16 attempts so far:
2009: A 5 seed and very young Purdue team loses to 1 seed Connecticut 72-60 in a game that was semi-close throughout, but UConn held a scrappy Purdue team at bay.
2010: A 4 seed Purdue that had lost Robbie Hummel less than a month before (costing it a 1 seed) gives eventual National Champ Duke a game before bowing late 70-57. Purdue was only down 2 with 9:36 left.
2017: A 4 seed Purdue plays 1 Seed Kansas tight for 24 minutes before they unleashed a Death Star on us.
There are two keys to advancing in March, as pointed out by Crimson Quarry a few weeks ago: You need reps and you need consistent high seeds. Painter’s best seed so far has only been a 3 seed. He has been a 4 seed twice and a 5 seed twice. Generally, his teams play to their seed. He is 7-2 as the higher seed, losing only to that smoking hot VCU team in 2011 and last year to Little Rock. There are basically two ways to consistently earn those higher seeds: either go an absolutely absurd 30-4 in a year or be consistently good over time.
The foundation for the “over time” corollary has now been laid. Purdue is back to a level of “hey, these guys are a solid basketball team every year”. We’ve been ranked in every poll for two straight seasons and will probably begin next season in the top 25. That’s a start. The next step is to move that 25-6 regular season into something like a 28-3. Purdue is probably a top 2 seed this year without losing at Nebraska and Iowa. If it beats Villanova at the beginning of the year it is at least one seed higher.
Of course, the common cry is “We need to demand more from Painter!” Okay. You think he is not wanting more? You think he is satisfied here? Do you think that starting a weekly rally and marching outside his office shouting “WE DEMAND MORE!” what will change things? Is he supposed to flagellate himself in the press conference after losses?
And that is why I am excited for next year and the years to come. The foundation that the Baby Boilers started and the 2013-15 teams eroded has been re-laid. Taking that next step is that hardest, and it is one Purdue has been trying to take for decades, but we are at least back at the point to take it. We enter next season knowing that a Big Ten title and return to the Sweet 16 are not only achievable, it is probably expected. Honestly, anything less would be a disappointment. We will have four senior starters returning. Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards return with another year of experience. A missing piece has been athleticism, but we have Eden Ewing, Aaron Wheeler, and Nojel Eastern coming in to give Painter his most “athletic” class yet. There will be more depth and even more versatility with the lineups that Painter can use. There is also the small chance Caleb comes back. I don’t think it happens, but if it does Purdue gets a huge boost. Even the schedule is there with the tough Battle 4 Atlantis field, a strong ACC/Big Ten Challenge home opponent, and Butler.
I would believe we have peaked under Painter if I saw him settling and not trying to improve, but that is not the case. The critics said he needed more shooters and he got them. The critics said he needed to improve against the press, so he scheduled a scrimmage against West Virginia and Purdue was much better against it this year. The critics said he was awful in close games, but Purdue showed incredible poise in late game situations this year for the most part. The critics said he couldn’t get a five-star and he got Swanigan. We are 12 years in and Painter has shown that he will at least address an issue and try to correct it.
Other opportunities will come. Purdue will be in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. That gives this team another chance to move forward, and I would MUCH rather be grousing about what we need to do to move past the Sweet 16 as opposed to the alternative of “how are we even going to make the tournament”. There are 320 or so teams right now that would love to be in our shoes because we at least have the chance to rectify the Sweet 16 problem next year.
So let’s remember this season for what it was. We won a Big Ten title for the first time in 7 years. We won it outright for the first time in 21 years. The foundation for more has been built and it is only a plateau if the players and coaching staff are satisfied right now.
I can assure you, they are not.