Matt Painter is as straight a shooter as there is in college basketball, so he should take these words in the same spirit with which he would offer them to someone else.
As of Friday night, Purdue is the choke artist program of the decade. There isn’t even a close second. And something in the DNA of what Painter has built desperately needs to change.
Those calling for Painter to be fired in the wake of Purdue’s latest Chernobyl-level meltdown, becoming just the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in NCAA Tournament history, are missing the mark. Painter is a tremendous basketball coach, and Purdue is a reliably good program that has advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in six of the last 14 years.
You don’t burn that to the ground and start over. Not at Purdue. Maybe not anywhere.
But the trend this program has built over three straight March disasters cannot stand. It’s not acceptable.
North Texas. Saint Peter’s. And now, Fairleigh Dickinson.
Once is a fluke. Twice is a problem. Three times isn’t just embarrassing, it’s damning.
Purdue losing 63-58 to Fairleigh Dickinson was like watching a cruise ship steer straight into an iceberg in perfect weather. It was like a surgeon dropping the scalpel and clipping an artery. It was like a pro golfer sending a 1-foot putt into a sand trap.
When things got even a little bit tense, Purdue completely curled up and turned what had been routine all season into catastrophe.
How do you win the Big Ten regular season by a significant distance, roll through the conference tournament and then come out and lose to a team ranked 275th in the kenpom.com efficiency ratings? A team, by the way, that only got into the NCAA Tournament because Merrimack, which beat Fairleigh Dickinson in the NEC championship game, was ineligible for the Big Dance.
You lose that game because you’re scared of it. Because you don’t have the mentality and the toughness to win it.
When the game was in the balance, Fairleigh Dickinson never wavered. Purdue ran, hid and hoped for a collapse from its opponent that wasn’t going to come.
Frankly, it was a little bit sad to watch. But it was also what Purdue deserved by the way it played Friday. The Boilermakers were timid. They were unintelligent. They were everything their critics accused them of being after the awful NCAA Tournament exits the last two years.
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Heck, they couldn’t even get a field-goal attempt for 7-foot-4 star Zach Edey in the final eight minutes. How does that even happen?
It happens because this is what Purdue does in March. Maybe the narrative would be different had Virginia not executed one of the most miraculous end-of-game plays you’ll ever see in the 2019 Elite Eight to send the game to overtime. If Kihei Clark doesn’t make a perfect pass from half court off a missed free throw to Mamadi Diakite to keep Virginia’s season alive, Purdue goes to that Final Four and maybe wins a national championship.
But that’s not the way it happened. So where do you go after that kind of heartbreak? Is it a springboard or an anchor?
Well, the next time Purdue got the chance to play in an NCAA Tournament, it looked slow and plodding as a No. 4 seed against North Texas in a 78-69 overtime loss in 2021. Hey, it happens to everyone sometime or another in March.
But then last season, Purdue took care of business in the first two rounds and earned a trip to the Sweet 16, where good fortune put the Boilermakers in the same bracket as Saint Peter’s, which advanced as a miraculous No. 15 seed. That should have been a layup into the elite Eight for Painter. Instead, it was a 67-64 nightmare loss in which Saint Peter’s shot 39 percent from the field and still won.
Now you have a third straight debacle exit, and this one is going to sting for a long, long time.
Fairleigh Dickinson played harder, played smarter and was the more fearless team under pressure. Purdue, for all its regular-season success, is going to be remembered as one of the biggest goats in March Madness history.
That’s the world Painter is going to live in for the next eight months, and the scar tissue is very real. Maybe he needs to recruit a few more dynamic athletes. Maybe his system needs to be a little more flexible. Maybe he needs to change some things in the way he prepares for tournament play.
But whatever it is, Purdue is a program that hums along from November until the conference tournament and then completely implodes when everybody else puts their best foot forward. That doesn’t mean Painter should lose his job, but he better find an answer for these March embarrassments.
Painter is a coach who values the truth. For Purdue, that starts with a long look in the mirror.