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Managed Expectations: Just How Good is Matt Painter in March?

After a first round exit there are naturally questions, but Painter is still a great coach.

North Texas v Purdue Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

I am ride or die with Coach Painter. He has earned enough goodwill over 16 seasons that barring an utter collapse (I am talking three straight years minimum of missed NCAA Tournaments) he is staying at Purdue as long as he wants. His 2019 coaching job remains his best, and his regular season job this year was fantastic.

Still, early round NCAA losses hurt. For the first time ever Purdue was upset as a top 4 seed. After last night there have now been 63 such upsets in NCAA history (and four happened this season, so Ohio State, Virginia, and Texas join us in solidarity). Arizona has the most with 4, followed by Indiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri with three each. It is something that happens to even the best programs. Duke, Virginia, Michigan State, UCLA, and Kansas have all been bitten at least once. For Purdue, it is not as shocking as it sounds. North Texas was a regular season champion of Conference USA in 2020 and had a ton of seniors that played tough, disciplined basketball. They were hungry after getting the chance denied them by COVID in 2020. They never flinched. Purdue did.

It was an underperformace, but is it typical under Painter? Let’s take a look at his history. He has built a program where the bare minimum expectation each season is to reach the NCAA Tournament. He has done that now 12 times in his 16 seasons. For the purpose of this experiment I’ll assign one point for every round Purdue advances beyond its seed (i.e., reaching round 2 as a 10 seed) and subtract a point for every round Purdue misses from its seed (i.e., this year Purdue was a four seed, thus expected to advance 2 rounds, so -2 points). I will throw his first season out (that was a severely undermanned team that had no expectations at all) and the 2020 season (likely missing the tournament, but still had a chance with a win or two in the Big Ten tourney). That accounts for two of the four seasons Purdue was not in the NCAAs.

2006 - Purdue goes 9-19 in year one. We knew it would be a struggle to get to even 10 wins. Let’s throw this one out. Incomplete

2007 - Purdue returns to the NCAAs for the first time in 4 years. Not only that, it wins a game as a nine seed (+1) and gives defending champion Florida everything it can handle in round 2. Carl Landry ends up in the NBA with a decent career, too. +1

2008 - The Baby Boilers show up. Purdue comes within a game of the Big Ten title and wins a game as a 6 seed over Baylor before losing to 3 seed Xavier. That’s performing exactly to seed. +0

2009 - Purdue wins its only Big Ten Tournament (I’ll give a bonus point for this) and gets a 5 seed to the NCAAs. Once there it beat Northern Iowa and 4 seed Washington to reach the Sweet 16 before falling in a competitive game to 1 Seed UConn. +2

2010 - The biggest “What if” here. Purdue wins the Big Ten, Painter’s first of three regular season titles, but because of Robbie Hummel’s injury it plummets from a near certain 1 seed to a 4 seed. It beats Siena and Texas A&M to reach expectations, but falls to Duke sans Hummel. +0

2011 - With no Hummel for an entire season Purdue still does well. it is competitive in the Big Ten race and earns a 3 seed, beating St. Peter’s, but is run off the floor by VCU during their magical run. The full baby Boilers era comes to a disappointing end. -1

2012 - With Hummel, Lewis Jackson, and Ryne Smith leading the way after losing two NBA draft picks Purdue slips, but still makes the NCAA Tournament. As a 10 seed Purdue pulls a mild upset of St. Mary’s. It then has Kansas on the ropes, leading for 39 minutes as Hummel goes down guns blazing in his final game. The Jayhawks squeak it out 63-60. +1

2013 - Purdue misses the tournament. Painter has a losing record and we face the indignity of playing in the CBI, losing to Santa Clara in Mackey. I am giving a -2 because 1. The expectation is to make the NCAAs every year, and 2. If you’re going to play in the CBI as a Big Ten team you had better win it, let alone lose in round 2. -2

2014 - It is the second straight season Purdue misses the NCAAs and there is no postseason at all. Another losing record. Painter’s seat gets a little warm, as there is a clear fracture in the locker room with multiple transfers out, too. -1

2015 - A bounceback year. Purdue enters the tourney at 21-12, comfortably in with no drama on Selection Sunday. It is a 9 seed and loses in overtime to Cincinnati after blowing a 7 point lead with a minute left in regulation. Technically, Purdue plays to its seed. +0

2016 - As someone pointed out last night, Purdue seems to get upset in round one every five years. Purdue starts playing its best basketball late and earns a decent 5 seed, but becomes a 12/5 victim when Little Rock makes its miraculous comeback and wins in double overtime. -1

2017 - Purdue wins its first outright Big Ten title in 21 years. Still, it is criminally underseeded as a 4 seed. The Boilers beat Vermont in round 1 and survive Iowa State in an excellent round 2 game. Kansas beats the brakes off of us in the Sweet 16. +0

2018 - The second largest “What if”. Purdue lets a 1 seed and Big Ten title slip away with losses to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. It still enters as a 2 seed when some no name stiff for Cal State Fullerton drags Isaac Haas to the floor and shatters his elbow. Purdue still beats Butler in round 2, but loses to 3 seed Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Does a healthy Haas beat Texas Tech? Villanova was the 1 seed and won the title, but does a rematch from the previous season’s Gavitt Games go different with a healthy Haas? We’ll never know. If Purdue is in the other half of the bracket there are so many upsets it walks to the Final Four even without Haas. -1

2019 - Purdue wins a surprise Big Ten title and makes a run to the Elite 8 as a 3 seed. It beats Old Dominion in round 1 and Villanova in round 2 handily. Painter finally gets a win over a top 2 seed thanks to Ryan Cline becoming incandescent for a few minutes as Purdue beats Tennessee in overtime. Then... Virginia. Two tenths of a second away. It still hurts. +1

2020 - Purdue is 16-15 and probably two possessions from 18-13 and comfortably in the field. It was a longshot, but with a win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament’s second round and a quarterfinal win over Maryland Purdue might have crawled onto the happy side of the Bubble. The point is there was still a chance. Incomplete

2021 - Purdue vastly exceeds every regular season expectation, but things end in disappointing fashion with consecutive overtime losses in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. The North Texas loss comes in Purdue’s third consecutive overtime NCAA Tournament game, and it is the fourth time in six appearances Purdue is eliminated in overtime. -2

So things are a little grim. Only four times has Purdue exceeded its seed under Painter (2007, 2009, 2012, and 2019). Purdue has played exactly to its seed and additional 4 times (2008, 2010, 2015, 2017). Throwing out 2006 and 2020 (for the reasons above) that leaves six seasons where Purdue was unable to meet its postseason expectations. In two of those years (2013 and 2014) it meant no tournament. 2010 2018 are also huge “what ifs”, while 2011, 2016, and now 2021 are the larger disappointments, as Purdue lost to a double digit seed each time. Under my scoring system Purdue is therefore -3, mostly because of that -2 for 2013 and the -2 for this year.

Of course, there is still time. The good news is that Purdue has earned a 5 seed or better in 8 of his 12 appearances. That makes it harder to play past your seed, and you have more opportunities to be “upset” simply because you’re the higher seed in almost every game. Purdue has also never been the higher seed in the Sweet 16 and beyond the five times Painter has taken us that far, and it has faced the lowest possible seed (i.e., a team that won its previous game as the lower seed) in the second round and beyond just twice: 2011 VCU and 2018 Butler, both in round 2.

Clearly, there is room for improvement. I would say that, overall, Painter has slightly underperformed, with this year’s loss putting a heavy weight in that direction. The good news is there is another chance to reach the Promised Land next year. I am still very, very high on the next two seasons for this team, but my biggest complaint with Painter in several of these overtime losses is his lack of substitutions. Against Little Rock and North Texas especially he seemed to freeze up and roll with the same lineup for too long. Against Little Rock it was Hammons getting gassed with a fresh Haas right there on the bench for a few possessions. Friday night it was Eric Hunter and Isaiah Thompson struggle while Sasha Stefanovic and Brandon Newman were nailed to the bench. Why punishing the Mean Green into submission with Trevion Williams and Zach Edey was not a priority from the tip is also baffling.

Finally, let’s look at his predecessor. Through 16 seasons Gene Keady had reached 12 NCAA Tournaments, had 6 Big Ten championships (he would not win another), but had only reached two Sweet 16s and one Elite 8 (1988 and 1994). He was 10-12 in NCAA Tournament games. Coach Painter has now reached 5 Sweet 16s, one Elite Eight, won three Big Ten titles (and come within a game of two more), and is 15-12 in the NCAA Tournament. Painter is ahead of him at this point, and Keady had a clear decline in his final 9 seasons with only one more great team (1998, a 2 seed) and one surprising run to the Elite 8 in 2000.

There is time. Painter is not going anywhere unless he chooses too and he is not an albatross on the program like Sharon Versyp. Things are still trending up and the pieces are there for some sustained greatness the next few seasons. There is no reason whatsoever Purdue can’t contend for its 25th Big Ten title and at least a Sweet 16 next year.