So I am back in Bankers Life (okay, Gainbridge now) Fieldhosue. I am currently sitting approximately 50 feet from where I sat on March 12, 2020 when everything went to utter hell. It was the last time I was in the building for anything even remotely basketball related.
If you would have told me that I would not do anything related to basketball: coverage, attend a game, etc, for 19 months I would have asked you exactly when I went into the coma. There was a season last year. It was incredibly weird, as coverage was very limited, fans were more limited, and most of us had to watch from afar. Walking back in today and just being able to hear coach Gearlds and coach Painter speak in person was a cathartic experience as it was a sign that things are finally becoming somewhat normal.
Oh, and they had a lot of good to say.
First Katie Gearlds spoke. The biggest takeaway is that she is a breath of fresh air after coach Versyp, especially when you consider the messy departure. Purdue women’s basketball had become stagnant for nearly a decade under coach Versyp. As one of the few Purdue sports programs that had once been a legitimate national power and threat to win titles, it was extremely frustrating. From 1994-2009 the program was on a run with a National title, a National runner-up, another Final Four, five additional Elite Eights, two more Sweet 16s, six conference titles, and nine additional Big Ten Tournament titles. We ran shit in the Big Ten, and while we were not on that same level as a Tennessee or UConn, we were that next tier down as a legitimate national force.
We can get to that level again. The program has been in decline for many years, which is a shame because I know we can be better. It is apparent that coach Gearlds can at least reverse the momentum. She has an enormous task ahead of her. It is going to take time because of where the program is, but you can tell she is ready to get to work. She has been there. She was a player in those final days of national prominence. She sees those banners in Mackey Arena and even put a few of them there. I love having her back and having a pair of NAIA National titles to her credit is great. The Big Ten is a big jump for her, but I think she can take it.
As for coach Painter, It is amazing to see how much he has evolved after 16 years at Purdue. Instead of forcing a system and making guys work it, he has become an incredibly versatile coach. He can be post-centric and continually has excellent big men. With Carsen Edwards he showed he can have great success with a “Give the ball to the hot hand and get out of his way” guy. This year he has both probably for the first time since JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore were here. Jaden Ivey is the hot guy that can take over a game. He has an absolute embarrassment of riches in the post. The supporting cast is probably even better than in 2010 and 2011.
Expectations are high, and he knows it. He wants to tinker with playing Trevion Williams and Zach Edey at the same time, but was clear he won’t force it. Having two guys that can be a capital P Problem cycle in and out for each other is incredible even before you consider Ivey. Always hungry though, he was keen on saying that celebrating in October and November mean nothing. It is where you are in February and March. He didn’t say it, but the goal is clear: A 25th Big Ten Championship and Final Four.
Coach Painter didn’t say a lot, but it is his quiet confidence and demeanor that stand out. He has the best resume in college basketball that does not include a Final Four, and he has gotten as close as you can get to one without actually going. He has been through the battles. He has seen everything and his prepared for everything. Only Tom Izzo has been in the Big Ten longer and that continuity is a gigantic chip in Purdue’s favor.
This was already going to be a highly anticipated season. Simply being back in a basketball arena, incredibly quiet during breaks with only the typing of sportswriters echoing in the chamber, did not take away from the excitement. On November 9 against Bellarmine it will be even more cathartic as Mackey gets to finally explode again.
32 days to go.