Welcome to the final entry in our homework series, and, as always, it is about coach Matt Painter. One of the many reasons I love having Painter as a coach is his openness to evolve. He is set apart from his peers because he is willing to adapt to his team’s strengths in individual seasons. Sure, it often takes some time to find what those strengths are, but once he does, Purdue thrives.
Take for example the 2018-19 season. Purdue had lost a ton of production. Its four departed seniors played excellent team basketball. The 2017-18 team was one that could shoot the lights out from three, but was often very balanced. Isaac Haas was a dominant player inside, but the perimeter game was also very good. It was a style centered around the strength of playing as a team and looking for that pass. They felt like they always played better than their individual talent levels, and the longer that winning streak went on the more that was apparent.
I view coach Painter’s 2018-19 season as his best coaching job, however, because Purdue had to adapted change pretty much everything. At Christmas time Purdue was sitting at 6-5. It has lost all four of its marquee non-conference games to Florida State, Texas, Virginia Tech, and Notre Dame. It looked absolutely listless in the 88-80 loss ot a not great Notre Dame team in the Crossroads Classic. At the time I sincerely doubted we were making the NCAA Tournament.
After that Notre Dame loss Purdue finally adjusted to slightly different team basketball. It let a superior offensive talent in Carsen Edwards cook, for good or bad. Sure, Carsen had a few bad games in there, but everyone became complimentary around him. The starting five consisted of a former walk-on as the perfect glue guy, a 7’2” center who had a very different type of game from Haas, a deadly shooter, a defensive specialist, and Carsen. The result ended up being a surprise Big Ten title and a Final Five. I call it a Final Five because, let’s be honest, we were as close to the Promised Land as you can get without actually making it. 2017-18 was built around having a different guy be “the guy” every night. The next season the team was built to let Carsen shine and just compliment him.
Then you look at recruiting. The Caleb Furst-Trey Kaufman-Renn-Brian Waddell class is a top 25 class nationally. Kaufman-Renn and Furst are two of the five best recruits (in terms of raw ratings) coach Painter has brought in. Painter has refined his approached and is getting guys that compliment each returning roster. The 2022 class is already doing pretty well and has a lot of promising prospects on the line. It will be a larger class with two already committed and with three seniors leaving at the end of the year, but the guys he already has committed are solid.
More importantly, he has locked down the state. He got arguably the best three players in Indiana, and plucking Kaufman-Renn right of out Indiana (and Louisville’s) back yard feels like a major coup. He has always done pretty well in Fort Wayne and the Region, but getting the guys out of Indy or further south has always been tough. It is probably going to take a Final Four breakthrough to start getting the five stars, but again, he has mastered getting players that complement each other and play well in his system. As we have seen with Indiana, it is often better to get solid 4-stars and build around them than to get a 5-star and hope he can elevate you individually for a year or two before leaving.
My largest concern with Painter is one that has been around a while. If it is a tight NCAA Tournament game he tends to freeze up and stick with his lineups too long. Look at the Little Rock game. I felt like we let Hammons wilt on the vine with a healthy and dominant Isaac Haas waiting on the bench ready for a possession or two in overtime. This year against North Texas there was similar. How long did we have the exact same lineup on the floor late? Was it the last 10 minutes of regulation?
That North Texas game was frustrating because Purdue had more talent and a gigantic strength in Trevion Williams & Zach Edey inside, but the Mean Green dictated the pace. It followed the recipe for many first round NCAA upsets. North Texas was a double digit mid-major that had a ton of seniors with experience against a high major team that was young. They never let the moment get bigger than them. They played their game and made Purdue adjust.
Their strategy was to work the shot clock every possession, make the extra pass, and make Purdue exert maximum effort on defense while shortening the game as much as possible. It was extremely frustrating because it felt like Purdue had to be perfect on every offensive possession. We never could get the lead and put the same pressure on them, and missed free throws down the stretch were the difference there. Painter was outcoached by a team and coach playing in its first ever NCAA Tournament game, and that is troubling.
Does Purdue tighten up as a team? Does Painter? I am sure I will do another “close games” breakdown some time, but when you look at the season as a whole Purdue got its fair share of wins in crunch time. At Miami, Valparaiso, both Maryland games, at Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Minnesota, Wisconsin, and both tournament games were all games that were within a single possession with less than a minute to go. Purdue went 5-5 in those 10 games. Those are the types of games that are coin tosses. Do we criticize Painter for falling behind big in games like at Michigan State and Ohio State in the B1G tourney, or praise him for pulling the strengths of those impressive comebacks?
The body of work over 16 seasons now has more than earned Painter leeway. We are currently in the midst of his second reset, and we’re much, MUCH further along than the nadir of the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In my mind this team VASTLY overachieved this year, and that is credit to what Painter has established. There were growing pains to be sure. The collapse at Miami was bad, but winning at Michigan State and Ohio State turned things around. This was expected to be one of the toughest Big Ten seasons in decades and every other team had a ton of experience. Coach Painter took one of the youngest rosters in the league and earned a top 4 finish. He now returns every significant piece, loses just one role players and is bringing in two highly touted freshmen to add to an already good team. Purdue will enter 2021-22 as a top 10 team nationally, and that is a credit to what he has built.
Coach Painter has won three Big Ten championships and has finished second an additional four times. In six of that last seven seasons it has finished in the top 4 of the Big Ten. The bare minimum expectation entering every season under Painter is to make the tournament. He has done at least that in 12 of 16 seasons (with 2020 technically being an incomplete because there was a chance, however, small, we still make it if the B1G tourney had been played). He has made the second weekend of the tournament five times. His predecessor only did that twice in his first 16 years and only did it five times period.
He is not going anywhere unless he chooses to leave. At minimum, Purdue would likely have to miss the tournament in three straight seasons for him to even remotely have a hot seat. In time, he is going to pass Gene Keady’s records and it is very likely Purdue will go half a century with just two coaches with the second being a direct link to the first. Coach Painter has the respect of pretty much everyone involved in NCAA basketball. He reminds me very much of Jay Wright and Tony Bennett even to the point where both had the “can they breakthrough” moniker until they did. He builds teams the right way and is among the best 20 active coaches in the country, maybe even best 10.
There is still that wall of no Final Fours though. With Painter it at least feels like a “when” instead of an “if”. As I said above, Painter got us as close as you can get without actually making it. It took one of the most improbable plays in NCAA Tournament history to deny him. Given all the pain of the last 40 years, it feels like Painter is fighting insidious dark forces at this point.
I feel like it is going to happen though. It’s coming. Painter has a 30 win season. He has shown Purdue is one of the best programs in the conference seemingly every year. When he bare minimum expectation every year is to make the tournament that means you at least have a chance every year. How many programs right now have that? Are there 20? He has earned his stability, and that can pay huge dividends given the treadmill and revolving door we have seen to our South over the last 20 years. My bold prediction is that some time in the next 10 seasons Purdue will finally make a Final Four, and the moment it happens it will unleash so many pent up emotions from a fanbase that has been low-key one of the most tormented in March over the last several decades.
Matt Painter is the guy that will get us there because he is always open to evolving.