It is time for the final entry in this series for the spring, and it is on coach Matt Painter. Coach has been upfront that he is always looking to evolve and we have seen that evolution over his time at Purdue. There is no question that he is a better coach now than he was in 2010, or even 2015. He has adapted his teams well based on the talent he has each year. In many years his teams have tremendous balance. In 2019 it was the Carsen Edwards Show. He has changed his recruiting philosophy and it has paid off in a run of solid recent results with four Sweet 16s, two Big Ten championships, two runner-up finishes, and five NCAA appearances in the last six years.
The 2021-22 season was a disappointment though.
It is very hard to say that about a year where Purdue was 29-8, achieved its first No. 1 overall ranking in program history, and was in the top 10 nationally for the entire season, but it is a year where so much was left on the table. Purdue lost out on a Big Ten championship because it lost four conference games on last second shots. It lost to a 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament by three points. It was a year where expectations were sky high, and with good reason, but it ultimately ended in frustration because this team was agonizingly close to fulfilling said expectations, all while not looking that great for long stretches.
This team had a lot of similarities to the 2017-18 team that won 30 games. That team also finished with no hardware and a Sweet 16 loss. Both teams lost at least a share of the Big Ten title on a single play (a failed box out vs. Ohio State and a miracle heave at Rutgers, respectively). That team consistently felt like it played 10-15% above its ceiling for most of the year. There is no question it was a great team, but it exceeded expectations for much of the season.
This year was different. On paper this was a more talented team than 2017-18, but it feels like it played 10-15% below its lofty ceiling regularly. Purdue was downright terrible in the first half at Indiana and for much of the second half against St. Peter’s. In four of the eight losses (St. Peter’s, Rutgers, Indiana, and at home vs. Wisconsin) Purdue was either tied or leading at the game’s final media timeout. Against Michigan State and at Wisconsin, additionally, it was either tied or leading within the final minute. Against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament Purdue was within a point with three minutes left. Five losses were by three points each, and when Jaden’s Ivey’s three-pointer against St. Peter’s missed while the Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan State, and Wisconsin threes went down it felt like a particularly cruel ending.
Purdue ended up playing 17 games that were within a possession in the last five minutes, but if it plays to its ability it turns a few of those games into more comfortable wins. If it plays to its ability half those losses become wins.
It looked like Purdue had finishing issues, and even in a few wins it was far too close. Purdue mucked around and very nearly lost at home to a bad Rutgers team. It took an extraordinary comeback to beat an even worse NC State team. The Ohio State game was a complete collapse late that was overshadowed by Jaden Ivey’s game-winning three. The home game against Indiana was another survival. I recognize that it is very difficult to be on night-in, night-out, but ever since Ron Harper Jr. hit that miracle heave in December Purdue was never the same.
This team was more than good enough to be special. It showed that early on by handling two teams that would eventually make the Final Four. It showed it later in impressive road wins at Iowa and Illinois, as well as a second half dismantling of the Illini in West Lafayette.
All of this goes back to coach Painter. What went wrong? This team had a unique balance of talent, depth, and experience. That ratcheted expectations through the roof, and when Purdue was truly on, I don’t think anyone in America could beat it. Unfortunately, it was not often fully on after that Rutgers game.
I think the largest knock on Painter this year was his loyalty and inflexibility in lineups. That is hard to knock him on, but there were games where some guys just flat weren’t performing and the rotation stayed set in stone. As much as I defended him, by late in the season Isaiah Thompson was an outright liability on defense and was struggling on offense, yet he continued to be a part of the rotation. Against St. Peter’s Purdue struggled to shoot from three and Jaden Ivey was terrible, but the offense continued to be perimeter oriented instead of pounding it inside against the smaller Peacocks. Purdue never had an answer for “We got the rare awful game from Jaden, now what?” when it had the talent to overcome it against that opponent.
Even then, it was a strange season because a lot of times Purdue was still in position to succeed, but it couldn’t execute. The biggest liability all year, the defense, showed improvement down the stretch, but the offensive efficiency that Purdue rode in the first half of the season eroded late. Being a great three-point shooting team means nothing when you shoot 25% from there in the St. Peter’s loss, or 25% vs. Iowa, or 11% against Michigan State. Purdue was getting open looks in those games too and they weren’t falling.
How much blame can you really lay on Painter if the shots aren’t falling? Purdue was under 30% from three in five of the eight losses: Rutgers, Michigan State, St. Peter’s, Iowa, and Michigan. You can throw out that Michigan game, as it was by far the worst loss of the season. In the other four if Purdue simply hits its average, it wins, likely going away. Ultimately, Painter can’t make the shots himself, and Purdue was often in a position with good shots and they didn’t fall.
So where does he evolve from here? It is difficult to say, really. Purdue was loaded this year. It had depth and a top 5 NBA draft pick. It had experience. It had size. It had shooting. We couldn’t ask for a more perfect team, but it underperformed and struggled in close games (10-7 in games that were within a possession with less than 5 minutes left). At one point this year I said that the most dangerous lead in sports is Purdue up seven or less at the last media timeout. It turned out to be prescient, as the Rutgers, Indiana, and St. Peter’s losses were near mirror images to the losses at Maryland and Minnesota the year before. For whatever reason, Purdue got tight in those games. You could see it. In watching you could almost hear the inner monologue of “I have to be perfect and score on this play” every time.
I don’t really know what to say about coach Painter. There is no question he is one of the best in the business. For the faults I have with this team, we’re probably about five plays away from having another Big Ten banner in the rafters and an Elite Eight appearance at minimum. He had the guys in position for success time and again this year, and if Purdue merely hits its average from three it is likely a 33 game winner and in the Elite Eight (if not further).
The results speak for themselves though. For the second straight season Purdue was eliminated by a mid-to-low-major that simply outworked them up and down the floor. That was the other thing I noticed this year. When things went bad it was because the opponent was just outworking us. St. Peter’s and North Texas have a lot in common because in the stretches of those games where Purdue was on, it was dominant, but for the majority of the game it was getting worked by a lesser opponent.
Matt Painter is not going anywhere. He has earned a significant leash at Purdue and it would take, at minimum, three straight losing seasons to even consider firing him. With him you know what you’re going to get at this point. Purdue is going to be in contention in the Big Ten year-in, year-out and making the second weekend of the NCAAs is not going to be a rarity. Even losing what we lose going into next season I still expect an upper half Big Ten finish and NCAA bid. The vast majority of college basketball would take that.
Still, it is going to be year 18. He was the hand-picked successor to Gene Keady, who made it 25 years. That’s 43 years of basketball where Purdue has been in that “Really good, but not elite” territory, and the March record speaks for itself. Painter is now 1-5 in Sweet 16 games, and the one win had a huge collapse and was very, very close to being a loss. At some point he has got to find a way to break through, and that is why he is getting paid what he is getting paid. He will never get as good of a shot as this year, right down to the bracket clearing out before us once the tournament started. Purdue is still in the basketball purgatory of “great team until the lights are brightest”. After this season I went back to “if” Painter gets us to a Final Four instead of a “when”, because if we didn’t do it this year I won’t believe it can happen again until we’re actually there.