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2020-21 Purdue Basketball Homework: Matt Painter

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Yes, even coach Painter has work to do.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Purdue Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

So this is an interesting one. Multiple people in the comments of the previous threads have requested a homework post on Matt Painter. I suppose it makes sense to do one on him because he has long shown that he is a coach always striving for more. Even after 15 seasons, three Big Ten titles, 11 NCAA appearances, four Sweet 16s, and an Elite 8 he is still striving for more. Like Gene Keady before him, he is looking for that white whale of a Final Four.

The fact he doesn’t yet have one is part of that evolution. Let’s rewind a bit to the fifth game of Purdue’s 2017-18 season. Purdue is playing Tennessee in the Bahamas and takes a 63-60 lead with 18 seconds left when Carsen Edwards connects on a pair of free throws. Painter elected to play defense and Lamonte Turner tied it on a challenged three with five seconds left. The Volunteers went on to win in overtime.

Painter was roundly criticized for not fouling while up three to prevent the tie. As it turns out, a little over a year later Purdue faced the exact same situation. Purdue was leading Virginia 70-67 after Ryan Cline’s free throw with 17 seconds left. This time Painter had Nojel Eastern foul Ty Jerome, again with 5 seconds left.

Well, we all know what happened next.

That Painter has no Final Four (yet) is through no fault of his own. If he doesn’t choose to foul there It is entirely possible Jerome or Kyle Guy hits a three to tie anyway. It is also possible they miss, Purdue rebounds, and we have a National title to our name right now. Painter instead chose a different path, but one of the most memorable plays in NCAA Tournament history happened to give the same result. I think if you presented Painter with the same situation he would absolutely foul again and risk the “okay, what are the chances the wild tipout results in a miracle play happens again?” That he changed strategy speaks volumes to me, and it almost worked.

This season was rough because we were coming off the best run of Painter’s career so far. Purdue won two Big Ten titles in three years (and, as I always say, was a rebound from a third). It won seven NCAA Tournament games, and came as close as you can get to a Final Four without actually going. I would go further to argue that his coaching job in 2018-19 was the finest of his career by a wide margin. He took a team that lost four starters and over 5,000 points of offense and won the damn Big Ten. He did this after a slow 6-5 start and did it with a former walk-on starting. As much as I loved the 2017-18 team, I feel like the pressure of that long winning streak and high ranking got to them just a little bit. Last year’s team played like it was much more loose.

Of course, that run can have consequences, and a 16-15 season a year later has people frustrated. It wasn’t even the record itself. It was the maddening inconsistency. Purdue absolutely blasted some very good teams in Virginia, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It also lost by double figures to a godawful Nebraska team and had a horrific night offensively at Illinois. We have long lauded Painter as a coach that develops talent. We have numerous example of this. One of the best is the development of Grady Eifert from “walk-on playing mop-up minutes” to “Big Ten starter and the guy that makes the clutch rebound to almost clinch a Final Four”. He has developed multiple guys into NBA players and Carsen Edwards went from “No. 91 overall recruit” to “lethal assassin” in three years.

This is going to be a major offseason for player development. It will also be affected by how long this moratorium on activities lasts, too. The 2019-20 season saw three guys who were expected to have major roles (Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms, and Aaron Wheeler) have a significant drop off from the previous year. Given the number of narrow losses Purdue had, had they simply managed to maintain their 2018-19 rate Purdue likely wins about 5 more games. Maybe more.

Purdue will also still be somewhat young with five freshman (three true, two redshirt) and two sophomores (one redshirt, one true) potentially logging minutes. At times this year Purdue struggled to figure out its chemistry on the court. It took 11 games for that to happen in 2018-19, but once it did, Purdue thrived. It never really happened on a consistent basis in 2019-20.

When you put Painter’s accomplishments side-by-side with Gene Keady through 15 years they are very similar. In year 15 Gene won his 5th Big Ten Championship and would get his sixth a year later. Painter has three, but he also has the only two seasons since the Big Ten went from 10 teams (so last 25 years or so) with three league losses to not win at least a share of the Big Ten (2008 and 2018). Both coaches made 11 NCAA tournaments in that span. Keady only made the Sweet 16 twice (1988 and 1994), while Painter has five. Both made their first Elite Eight in their 14th season. They have been roughly equal in the regular season, with Painter being better in March. Keady also never had a Haas/Hummel moment costing two of his best teams (though there was Big Dog in the Elite Eight).

Painter is not going anywhere for a long time. Even this season did not shake my faith in him, mostly because of the masterful job he did in 2018-19. To me, it would take at least two more years of missing the tournament (and while he likely would have missed it this year, that is not 100% certain) in a row for me to question his longevity. He is also starting to ride a mounting wave of recruiting successes built on last season’s NCAA run. Ethan Morton, Jaden Ivey, and Caleb Furst are among the best players he has brought in during his tenure. Getting Harrison Ingram would be a gigantic boost as well.

The future looks very bright for Purdue. Painter has raised the bar significantly since arriving in West Lafayette. While each season still has “make the Tournament” as a bare minimum goal, Painter has raised Purdue to reasonably expect contention for Big Ten titles and reach the second weekend in March. The three year run from 2017-19 is hopefully just the beginning and not the peak. In the next five years I think at least one more Big Ten title, plus 2-3 more deep runs in March are reasonable expectations.

Also, maybe we can finally reach the promised land after all this time and suffering. When it does happen, it will be so much sweeter after 1988, 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2010, 2011, 2018 and 2019.