The 2018 Purdue season finished at TD Arena in Boston in the Sweet Sixteen with the #2 seed Boilermakers falling to Coach Chris Beard’s #3 seed Texas Tech Red Raisers. It probably finished earlier than that though, in Detroit, out with a bang that echoed all the way up to the rafters of the Little Caesar's Arena. I was there, all the way up there, and I can still hear that heavy thud.
But back to the coaches that can’t stop playing each other.
It was the second time Coach Matt Painter’s Boilermakers took on a Beard coached squad as the higher ranked team. It was the second time Coach Beard got the better of him.
They’ll play for a third time in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. This time in Milwaukee. This time with Coach Beard at Texas.
There’s a bar in Boston. It’s called the Green Dragon Tavern. It was called the Green Dragon, way back in the day, before the US was, you know, the US. Their site says that it was at this bar that Paul Revere overheard the conversation that started one of the most important road trips in history.
I had lunch there, some hours before the game, lobster mac n cheese to go with the sharp accents (laaaaaaaaaaaahhbsta) and all the dark wood and antiques displayed on the wall. I walked the steps after, the ones Revere took around the city. Some of the bricks in the road are still there.
We have a natural fascination for this, history, walking in the steps of the people before us. Is it out of admiration? Respect? A deeper need to understand where we came from?
For Purdue fans, it’s starting to feel like we go there out of fear. Fear, a need to remember the historic sites of all our greatest anguishes and disappointments. We go there to remind ourselves what it is that’s created this, a non-perfect union between fan and team. We go there because we believe that history repeats itself.
There it is. Purdue’s history. Glenn Robinson. Rick Mount. The Baby Boilers. Inevitably, Arkansas Little-Rock. The game in Boston. Virginia. The tip. The pass. The floater.
There is no Paul Revere in our story... not yet. Or is there? Did Paul Revere exist in that moment, in that tavern, or did he come later? On the horse? After the war? What if America had lost, and simply never been? What do we call him then?
In Boston, that day, there was a warning. This team, this construction, this kind of offense, it’s not going to work. Maybe it could have with Isaac Haas with two working elbows... but there was the Arkansas Little-Rock, too, and Purdue had three dominant centers then.
Coach Painter had to have felt it. He had to have known because he reached out to someone in Boston, Coach Micah Shrewsberry, and he asked him to come back to West Lafayette, back to Purdue.
Coach Painter was going to be losing a lot that year. Dakota Mathias would be gone. Isaac Haas. Vincent Edwards. PJ Thompson. A single class that pulled Purdue back in the right direction.
Amongst all that loss, Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline were coming back. How was that going to be enough? How was Purdue going to spark their own revolution with just two guards?
There’s more anecdotes and analogies to draw, I’m sure. America was not Britain, after all. They weren’t well-stocked or full of five star athletes. They had gumption and the advantage of space, and they stopped playing by the rules. Restrictions put in place by gentlemanly agreements about war.
Purdue does not have top-5 NBA lottery picks. They play lumbering bigs and smart shooting guards that play ‘the right way.’ They put the ball inside and then back inside and then they do it some more.
They play defense because they have to play defense. They’re not good enough to outscore you. They will not meet you out on a battlefield head on, they’ll guerrilla war far you and pick their spots.
But somewhere it becomes convoluted, blending the metaphor with the madness, and we have to just get here.
I’ve spent the morning watching Purdue lose to Arkansas Little-Rock. I’ve spent the morning watching Purdue lose to Texas Tech.
I have only one real note: this is not those Purdue teams. This is not that Purdue program.
Basketball isn’t war, but programs can absolutely have revolutions. They can change before our eyes. So quick that you don’t even realize it happened. Definitely before you believe in it.
You see, Purdue didn’t need an exorcist after all. They needed a Trevion Williams. They needed a Jaden Ivey. They needed a Zach Edey. They needed Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr., they needed more Mr. Indiana Basketballs and runner ups, and they needed a new offense.
They needed Coach Painter to be a better coach, and now he is. He’s learned. He’s evolved, too. “I didn’t make a mistake in the Virginia game. I made a mistake in the Little-Rock game,” he says halfway through his Saturday press conference. He’s talking blown leads and when to foul. It’s just more evidence that he knows he can’t be stubborn, he has to change.
Back to that 2019 season, to Coach Shrewsberry and Purdue’s evolution on offense. There were always sets, good sets even, but Purdue’s offense didn’t just run through the post, it insisted on the post, it needed the post. That’s why Isaac Haas’s injury was so devastating. Not just because Texas Tech was so small, but because Purdue needed to be so big. When they lost Haas, they lost their offense.
Dakota Mathias and P. J. Thompson were great guards. They played great defense and didn’t take bad shots. Part of the truth of that is that they couldn’t make bad shots. That wasn’t their game. They relied on the gravity of Haas, the screens off ball, and finding the space those two things would afford them.
Fast forward and Jaden Ivey is blipping out of existence at the three-point line, reappearing in the paint at the other side of his defender, rising up at the rim. Tre is shimmying left, then going right, taking contact and falling back and still lobbing the ball up with touch and precision. Even Eric Hunter Jr., at one point a limited offensive player has started to flash on offense, the #1 three point shooter in Big Ten play in the conference, and a big guard, capable of finishing inside the paint off a bunch of herky jerky moves and his left hand.
Mason Gillis is probably three inches shorter than you’d prefer your power forward, but he’s a 4 star who shot 43% from three this season and is a brutal rebounder. He can defend big and small, rotate and hedge, double inside, or stick with his man on the perimeter. If you want that extra three inches, Coach Painter has a true freshman Caleb Furst who is every bit of 6’10” and just had the best game of his career in his first NCAA game despite hardly being in the rotation the last month.
Versatility. Athleticism. All-around skill. Still sized. Still shooters.
Scheme is dependent on players, but the players a coaches get is dependent on purpose. It depends on the plan a coach has and the one he wants to implement.
So we’re back to Coach Shrewsberry and a new offense, and Coach Painter putting a new plan in place, or at the least a variation on the previous. An omicron level variation. It’s contagious, very contagious, to move the ball, to fill the court with play makers, with shot makers. It’s no longer just find the guy in the post. Purdue needs to pressure people everywhere. Even more so, they need to be able to change, too, adapt and counter the pressure from other teams. Teams like Coach Beard coaches, no matter what uniform they’re wearing.
It’s run Jaden Ivey hard around two screens ala Ryan Cline ala Carsen Edwards, and then it’s allowing him a runway where he can decide if he wants a drive or a shot or a one on one match up with a 7’4” center who is somehow already more imposing than Isaac Haas or A. J. Hammons. It’s countering the Spain pick and roll by sending that big man to the rim for an alley oop. It’s about finding players and a scheme that allows its players to change the answers because teams have had a way of changing the questions on Purdue or maybe it’s just bad luck and injuries. You’ll have to defeat both anyways, if you’re going to actually break through.
Shrewsberry is gone now, onto his own team, Penn State, but his effects still remain. An optimized offense, variations on variations on variations, and Coach Painter has not stopped toying with his sets, his personnel, and creating a new style of Purdue basketball.
As the kids would say, Coach Painter is in his bag, and the bag is big.
It’s not normal, this kind of evolution in basketball. There’s too much change, everywhere.
In the four years since Purdue lost that game to Texas Tech, Chris Beard went to a National Championship game. Then he went to another school. His dream school. He went home long after Coach Painter was already settled at his.
But that’s not the right word. Settles. This is all about the opposite of that. What Chris Beard will have to find out, maybe, if he stays this time is that just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re done.
“He’s done a great job at all his stops,” Coach Painter says, mentioning the Little-Rock game, Texas Tech.
“You learn from your losses,” he continues. “You learn from it. You want your teams to be as tough as that.”
We’re supposed wrap these things up with something clever.
Four years ago Coach Painter and Coach Beard went through the circus of coaching high caliber NCAA teams about to play each other.
New schools. New players. New arena.
What do they say? As much as things change, they stay the same?
Coach Painter is hoping this team changes that.