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Purdue Basketball: More Grateful Dead, Less NSYNC

At its heart, basketball is a game of improvisation.

Grateful Dead in Concert 1990 - Carson CA Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

I’ve held off on this article for a week. I wanted everyone else to have their say, and I wanted to let things simmer in my brain for a while. I’m not sure if this is fully cooked or not, but we’re transitioning to football next week and I wanted to get something out on Purdue’s monumental March collapse.

One of my big issues is separating my own taste in basketball from this article. Plainly put, I didn’t enjoy watching Purdue from a stylistic standpoint this season. Don’t get me wrong, I watched every game and enjoyed the results, but if you took the Purdue jersey off the players, I wouldn’t spend my time watching this team. If you saw one Purdue game this year, you saw every Purdue game this year. Nothing changed between Truman State and Fairleigh Dickinson other than the opponents.

I enjoy defensive intensity. I enjoy a multi-dimensional offense. I enjoy teams that go out and take games instead of waiting for the slow grind of efficiency and opponent foul attrition to win the day. I enjoy improvisation inside a structure instead of strict adherence to choreography. That was the opposite of Purdue basketball this season (and *most recent seasons).

*2018-2019 excluded

This leads me to the title of this article.

The Grateful Dead vs NSYNC

Purdue plays basketball like a boy band. It’s like watching 35 NSYNC concerts over five months. The guys go out on the court, perform the required moves, hit prescribed notes, play the songs in the right order, and then head back to the dressing room once it’s over. To be fair, NSYNC made a ton of money. They found a formula that worked, stuck to it, and watched money pile up. If that’s your definition of success, they were wildly successful. No one would accuse them of being “good musicians” but they certainly were efficient. If you’re looking to make money off a band, the NSYNC approach, however trite and repetitive, is a much safer bet than putting together a group of talented musicians and seeing where music takes them. In terms of practicality, I understand Coach Painter’s myopic focus on efficiency and repetition. Depending on your definition of success, Matt Painter is a wildly successful coach. If Purdue let Matt Painter go today, I would drive to Clemson (my alma mater), chain myself to the front door of the athletics office, and demand they hire Coach Painter today. When you’re consistently inconsistent, the consistency Matt Painter brings is tantalizing.

Personally, I’m more of Grateful Dead fan. I like to see actual talent on display. I don’t want to hear the same song, the exact same way, 10,000 times in a row. I don’t want the concert to sound exactly like the album, otherwise I’d stand in a crowded bar with headphones on and get the same experience. I want to see Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Pigpen take the stage with a general idea of what they are trying to accomplish and improvise within those constraints. At the same time, there was no guarantee with the Grateful Dead (or any improvisational group). When things came together, they were transcendent, when things didn’t click, they put on a truly awful show. That’s the trade off. You know what you’re getting with NSYNC. You show up with expectations, and they meet those expectations. With the Dead, you could show up and watch a three hour train wreck, but you could also end up experiencing something truly inspired. In terms of basketball, that’s not a trade-off Matt Painter has been willing to make.

My Other Basketball Teams

It’s been a weird basketball season for me as a writer. I write about Purdue, Kansas State and Clemson. Oddly enough, Clemson is generally a lesser version of Purdue. They play similar styles (owing to Coach Brownell’s deep Indiana roots) but Purdue does it better. Then there is the 2022-’23 Kansas State team. Last season under Bruce Weber, they were essentially Clemson with different players. This season under Jerome Tang they were something altogether different. The basketball, while sometimes ugly, was never boring.

Coach Tang put in the general concepts and let guys like Markquis Nowell, Keyontae Johnson, and Nae’Qwan Tomlin figure out what worked. I had no idea what to expect from game to game, but neither did the opponent. They were the Grateful Dead of basketball. You had to buy a ticket to find out if the ‘Cats were going to run up and down the court and put up 116 points in a win over Texas, or if they were going to slow things down and grind out a 61-55 win against Iowa State. They were capable of both, and could play different styles within their offensive framework. Improvisation provides solutions. When things go wrong in a one dimensional offense like Purdue’s, there are no solutions.

Early in the season, though, Kansas State had a few clunkers. They beat a bad Wichita State team 55-50. They lost to a bad Butler team 64-76. Sometimes Nowell (if Kansas State is the Grateful Dead, then Markquis Nowell is Jerry Garcia) lost the thread. Much like Carsen Edwards in 18’-19’ at Purdue, he occasionally tried to do too much. He took too many deep 3’s, he made too many risky passes when a simple pass would suffice. He sold out for steals and gave up easy buckets. In some games he was peak inefficiency, but Coach Tang never pulled back on the reins.

As the season progressed, things started coming together. Nowell figured out the best way to utilize his running buddy and elite finisher Keyontae Johnson. He got a better feel for Tomlin’s unique 6’10”, with a 7’4” wingspan but a wing skill set. He figured out when to score and when to pass. Unlike Purdue, the Kansas State team that lost to Butler was nothing like the Kansas State team that lost to FAU in the Elite 8. Coach Tang gave them space to grow together, make mistakes, figure things out, and the end product, while not as consistent as Purdue’s, especially early, ended up with a better when (depending what you value in college basketball) it mattered most.

My Challenge to Matt Painter

My challenge to Matt Painter this off-season is to embrace potential brilliance over paint by numbers efficiency. Be more like the Grateful Dead and less like NSYNC. I’d like to see him value a high ceiling over a high floor. I want to see Purdue use the non-conference schedule to experiment. I see no value in grinding a team like Austin Peay into dust with the boy band offense. If Edey comes back, I want to see him at the elbows taking jumpers. I want to see him at the top of the key making high/low entrance passes to forwards and guards posting up size mismatches. I want to see Painter go small with Gillis at the 5 for a stretch. I want to see Morton run the pick and roll and showcase the killer mid-range jumper he featured in high school. I want Painter to let his guys play and find solutions outside of the offense, so when the offense breaks down, he’s not left with “keep doing what we’re doing and hope something changes” as he watches a team like St. Peters or FDU implement a game plan built around taking away what Purdue does well.

I know everyone focuses on the offense, but it’s the defense that makes me grind my teeth. I can’t stress this enough. Painter needs to throw the “no touching” defense in the dumpster, light the dumpster on fire, and send the ashes to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. After re-watching the FDU game, what struck me the most was the comfort level of both teams. Purdue was never comfortable in the game. FDU looked right at home. The #16 seed looked like the hunter and the #1 seed looked like the hunted. One team was the clear aggressor and it wasn’t Purdue, and it was all about defense. FDU forced Purdue to improvise, and they couldn’t do it. Meanwhile FDU ran the same sets they ran against Texas Southern.

I’m not naive enough to ask Matt Painter to implement a zone (although he’s tried it before and given up before it had a chance) or a full court press, but can Purdue at least turn up the pressure? I spent a few paragraphs talking about K-State this year, but they lost last night, in part, because FAU made life miserable for them. Every possession was a fight for Kansas State to get the ball where they wanted it on the court. It’s hard to improvise when a guy is constantly in your face. At one point in Painter’s career, he coached a similar defense. Then risk aversion and mathsketball analytics kicked in and he went away from one of the core values (at least in my lifetime) of Purdue basketball.

Think about a player like Chris Kramer. Matt talks about him at every opportunity, but he wouldn’t have a place on the 2022 team. Kramer was too aggressive on defense and wasn’t a good spot up shooter to play in this version of Painter’s analytics basketball. Matt is married to his formula on offense and defense. His formula, by nature, raises Purdue’s floor, but also lowers their ceiling. Eventually in March, you’re going to run into a hot player capable of hitting shots. When your entire defensive strategy is built around giving guys the opportunity to hit shots, you lose.

I see no bigger repudiation of Painter’s defensive philosophy than FDU’s Sean Moore. In his pregame press conference Matt told the world that he was going to put Zach Edey on Sean Moore because Moore wasn’t a good shooter. In response, Moore put up a season high 19 points because Matt forgot that dribbling is also part of basketball. FDU knew what was coming, and gave Moore the bright green light. Moore got up 17 shots (including 10 3’s) and hit 4 2’s, 3 3’s. It wasn’t efficient, but 19 points from Moore was enough to push FDU over the top. He didn’t lose points for missing 7 3’s but he was awarded 9 points for hitting 3 of them. The “let him shoot and hope he misses defense” doesn’t work when the guy hits a few shots. At the same time, Matt had no other option. He couldn’t take Edey off the floor, because his offense is built around him, but Zach couldn’t guard anyone on the court. Meanwhile FDU was using 3 guys to guard Edey and challenging Purdue’s notoriously fickle shooting guards and forwards to hit outside shots to win the game. The Edey vs Moore match-up ended with Zach scoring 2 more points than Moore. Purdue can’t win like that.

In Summary

I’m in a weird spot. I don’t like Purdue’s current style of play, but I can’t argue with in-season results. I still think Matt Painter is the right guy for the job, but in a weird way, I want him to coach less. I want a coach capable of pulling back a team when they’re going too fast, but I don’t want a coach that takes away the aggression of 4 out of 5 players on the court. I want him to turn his guys loose and let them play basketball, even if the math doesn’t always work out.

On defense it’s the same thing. Let’s bring the passion back. Teams feed off defense, and it was clear in the FDU game that the Knights were sustained by their pressure and aggression, while Purdue starved. Matt, I’m begging you: go back and look at tape from earlier in your career and turn your guys loose. You’ve got the depth to survive foul trouble. Your recruiting has vastly improved. Let your guys turn up the pressure and make the other team feel you for 40 minutes.

I’m tired of the “boy band” style of play, but I know Matt Painter has the ability to let his hair down and let the players jam out like the Dead. I saw it early in his career with the “Baby Boilers” and I saw it in 18’-19” with Carsen and Company. Regardless of the personnel, I want to see it again in the 23’-24’ season. Basketball is a sport of improvisation and I want less “Bye Bye Bye” and more “Dark Star”.

I’ll live with the results.