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Purdue Basketball - Time for Change?

How can Purdue make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

First thing, as you would expect, is first, I’m not going to advocate for the firing of head coach Matt Painter. I understand that there’s a certain subset of the Purdue fandom that wants him gone, and I certainly understand their anger and frustration, but I’m not there yet. I actually have seen some people say they’ve advocated for him to be fired since 2008 and my mind just about exploded. I acknowledge that March has been Painter’s undoing. I also acknowledge that this loss to Fairleigh Dickinson is completely unacceptable. There’s no world in which it’s okay for a 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed. Especially to a 16 seed that shouldn’t even have been in the tournament. I mean, this team only got in because their conference tournament champion wasn’t eligible for March Madness. What a wild confluence of events that led Purdue to lose to Fairleigh Dickinson. So, I’m not here to say Matt Painter is an infallible coaching genius. He’s made mistakes, a number of them, but my hope, and I hope yours as well, is that Painter will learn from this and improve for next year.

So, with the firing of Matt Painter off the board, according to me, what does Mike Bobinski do? Bobinski is in a difficult position here. He, of course, didn’t hire Matt Painter but ultimately has been happy with the hire I’m sure. Mackey Arena has been packed to the rafters nearly every game. The team has been ranked #1 in back to back seasons after never having been ranked #1 in the history of the program. Recruiting continues to go well with highly ranked classes and hidden gems like Braden Smith and Zach Edey being found. The team just won the regular season conference title, the conference tournament title, and the Phil Knight Legacy invitational which brought a huge amount of positive press for the program.

But, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Painter and the Boilermakers have flamed out spectacularly in the NCAA Tournament to double digit seeds the last three tournaments. Does Bobinksi go the Michigan route and take back some of Painter’s guaranteed money and make it contingent on performance in March? I highly doubt that. Does he sit down with Painter and demand changes to the staff? I’m not sure if Bobinski is the kind of guy to force staff changes onto his coaches. So what does that leave him with? I’m not sure he has many options here. I’m sure a conversation will be had between the two, as it is every offseason, and expectations will be laid out, but Bobinski is a smart guy and knows how unpredictable March Madness can be. Does he just chalk this up to the difficulty of the tourney or does he believe this is a more systemic problem? Either way, that conversation will likely be a difficult one. Bobinksi understands that the fanbase is angry and that without a correction things might get ugly.

So what about Matt Painter as a coach? There are any number of things he can do. We don’t know if he intends to retain the entire staff but Painter hasn’t been known to push out staff very often, if ever. Painter knows who his guys are and wants to do right by them so I don’t see him forcing someone out after one flameout. After every offseason coach Painter and the team sit down in individual meetings to discuss the offseason and what they need to do for the next season. We will have a series of homework assignments for the returning players as the offseason progresses.

To me though, there are two things that Painter absolutely must work on in this offseason. I’m going to use a baseball analogy here. Painter is like a good relief pitcher. He’s got a great fastball and he’s consistent with it. The problem is that everyone knows he has a good fastball and not much offspeed stuff so the opponent can key in on it. Painter has to work on a changeup. For him that could mean a couple of different things. Whether or not Zach Edey comes back Purdue needs to be able to play small. These NCAA Tournament teams that are overmatched want to play fast and small. If Purdue can’t find a way to get the ball into their dominant center they’ve got to be able to play faster and smaller. With Caleb Furst and Trey Kaufman-Renn on the team Purdue has two great options for this type of play. I know it’s difficult to put your All-American on the bench but sometimes you have to take what the opponent is giving you and with Purdue struggling to shoot the three they needed speed and quickness and they simply didn’t switch things up to take advantage of their personnel. Caleb Furst found success going 2-2 from the floor. Maybe if given more of an opportunity he could’ve increased those numbers and changed the game.

If Painter decides that going small isn’t going to work he has to figure out how to take advantage of his player’s skill in the midrange game. In addition to the 2-2 from Furst when he was playing down low, Gillis was 3-10 from the floor but 1-7 from three. That means he was 2-3 from elsewhere on the floor. I know the analytics say that the midrange shot is not an efficient shot but if your team shoots 5-26 from three that tells me that three point shooting isn’t very efficient either. Painter always talks about being process based, but this process can’t be so rigid. You have to see what’s in front of you and not get sucked into the numbers. That leads me into my next point.

I discussed this on the Boiler Alert podcast earlier this week, but I wanted to expand upon it here. Painter’s style of coaching can best be described as rigid. He knows who he is, what he’s good at, and he knows how to get his guys to do it That’s why Painter coached teams always seem to do a better job at the start of the season. Purdue took down West Virginia, Marquette, Duke, and Gonzaga early in the season. Those teams seemed to have improved as the season progressed while Purdue appeared to be fully formed. Related to my changeup analogy, Purdue must find a way to change things up as the rest of the country finds themselves. Painter is incredibly smart, one of the best basketball minds in the country, but he too often believes that just sticking to the process will be enough to pull him through. That may be true over a long enough span, but in March Madness you don’t get to determine over multiple games who is the best team, ala the Big Ten regular season, it’s a one and done situation. The sample size isn’t big enough for the process to work. Sometimes, the process doesn’t work in one game and if you’ve got a 20 game conference season that’s fine. In March, it’s not. Painter has to recognize that and change his mindset.

Finally, Painter has to realize that college basketball no longer is centered around...well...centers. I love Zach Edey and all the seven footers who came before him, but college basketball teams that win in March aren’t focused on the center position. They win with guards. Painter had such guards a few years back with Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. Add either of those guys to this Purdue team and they are still playing this weekend I almost guarantee it. Purdue didn’t have a guard ready to step up, make a play, and be THE GUY. Without someone doing that Purdue got scared of losing, scared of missing, and played far too tight. I know with Myles Colvin coming in Purdue might have found the guy, but he will be just a freshman. So, will Painter find room on the roster to hit the transfer portal hard and add a dynamic guard? Painter tried his best go get Miami star Nijel Pack to come to Purdue last year but a, rumored, NIL deal sunk the ship there. In this modern NIL world Purdue and Painter have to be able to compete against schools with deeper pockets. It’s a brave new world and Painter has to find his legs.

Every year 67 teams end their time in March Madness with sadness/anger/frustration. Purdue has been on that end of it for the entire time the tournament has existed. This season was worse. Purdue put in the work to be a 1 seed. They won the conference regular season and the tournament titles. It looked like they had figured something out, but then a 16 seed wins for just the second time. Heartbreak. It hurts and seems worse than the losses to St. Peter’s or North Texas only because of the seeding and historic nature of the loss. Next year, Purdue will have the talent to make another run, but without some changes I fear that we will be right back here next March. I know that Painter can do it, he’s changed his style in the past, but it’s just a matter of if he decides sometimes the process needs tweaking. For his sake and ours I have to believe he will.