In order to be victim of your own success, a person has to have a lot of success. While coaching at Purdue, Matt Painter has had a lot of success. During Painter’s 18 seasons as head coach at Purdue, he has accumulated a 384-192 record, winning .667% of the games he has coached at his alma mater. Not bad for a guy that took over a program that didn’t have a 20 win season the previous five seasons before he became head coach and endured a 9-19 season his first year in charge.
In the 17 years since, Purdue has averaged 22 wins each season while winning 3 conference championships, 1 Big Ten tournament championship, making 6 Sweet Sixteens, and 1 Elite Eight Appearance. Quite the impressive resume, especially when you consider what the man who coached before him, chose him as his successor, and has the court named after him did while he was in charge of the program. During Gene Keady’s 25 seasons, he went 512-270 at Purdue for a .655 winning%, while winning 6 Big Ten Championships, 5 Sweet Sixteens, and 2 Elite Eights.
Assuming Matt Painter coaches another 8 years at Purdue and wins 22 games a season, he’ll pass Gene Keady’s win total in a little over 6 more seasons. He might struggle to get three more Big Ten titles in that span, but the league has added three more programs and two more conference games since Coach Keady’s days. However, he has already advanced to the same points in the tournament as many times as his mentor, and right now he’s in his coaching prime. Purdue is revered as one of the most electric home court environments in the country and at 51 years old, Coach Painter could conceivably coach another 20 years for his alma mater. The question now is whether Purdue fans will recognize the great job he’s done or want to run him off for another March where raised expectations weren’t met in the eyes of the passionate fanbase. If some Purdue fans eventually get what they want, they’ll run off a guy that is a victim of the success he and his mentor created.
I was a student at Purdue from 1995-99, but I have a bit of a unique perspective. I grew up on the east side of St. Louis as a rabid Illinois basketball fan. The Flyin’ Illini were right in my prime years as a kid, and that team captivated a nation. As a kid outside St. Louis, I really didn’t hear or know much about Purdue basketball growing up. I knew they played in the Big Ten and a close family friend that was an alumus reminded me of how good they were, but there wasn’t much on a regional or national level that drew outsiders to Purdue basketball. This is from the perspective of a sports kid who grew up in the 80’s where Purdue won back to back Big Ten titles and finished in the AP Top Ten both of those seasons. As a kid, the only thing I remembered about college basketball from Indiana was Bob Knight teams and the 1987 national champion Hoosiers. Despite winning the Big Ten that season, it wasn’t Purdue that made a Final Four and cut down the nets, it was Bobby Knight. I remember following Indiana basketball and being able to name their starting lineup each year, but I couldn’t name one player from Purdue. During those back to back Big Ten championship seasons in 87 and 88, Purdue and Gene Keady only managed to win 3 NCAA tournament games. Yet, Keady went on to coach another 17 years at Purdue, and I’m sure Boiler fans are very thankful for that.
March raises the profile of programs on the national level, and unfortunately for Purdue, that’s been an elusive hurdle for them to get over. Most people in the midwest admire the consistency of Purdue men’s basketball, but outside of Big Ten country most people don’t really have many memories of Purdue basketball. Despite all of it’s success, Purdue is not and has not been a national brand. When I moved to Indiana in 1992, I remained a passionate Illinois fans. Being isolated from other Illinois fans only seemed to cement my passion and loyalty for the school. In high school, my friends still talked about the Flyin’ Illini. Even though the program had slipped a bit since then, they still had players that people around the country were aware of or were starring in the NBA. That in a backhanded way is how I ended up at Purdue University myself.
This is going to sound completely ridiculous, but when I was presented with college options, I knew I had to stay in-state to reduce tuition costs. I wanted to go to a big school that had a really good sports environment. I knew I didn’t want to go to Indiana because they were bitter rivals of Illinois on the basketball court, so there was no way I was going there. I disliked the school without ever setting foot on campus. However, in 1994 Purdue had the national player of the year, Glenn Robinson. He even had a nickname that everybody in college sports still knows to this day. Yeah, that school would do just fine, and it was an even bigger plus that I really didn’t know much about them, except there really didn’t seem to be much of a rivalry between them and Illinois. If you don’t think March success and sports programs in the spotlight attract students, I’m here to tell you that’s not true.
When I made my college decision in the fall of 1994, Glenn Robinson was no longer in school at Purdue, but the basketball program was still on it’s way to winning its second consecutive Big Ten championship. However, it was pretty cool to say I was going to the same school that Glenn Robinson did. One of us was the #1 overall draft pick, and the other was a scrawny, unathletic freshman. My freshman year Purdue basketball finished the three-peat of Big Ten titles. I have to admit it was pretty cool going to a school that was winning a lot of basketball games and had an electric home court environment, but it still didn’t stop me from rooting for Illinois every time they came to town. In fact, the only home game Purdue lost all season was to my Illini and their stud guard, Kiwane Garris. However, that didn’t stop Purdue from earning a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament where they narrowly escaped becoming the first team to ever lose to a #16 seed in the NCAA tournament by seeing two open shots in the last 5 seconds rattle off the rim and keep Western Carolina from being known around the country. Unsurprisingly, Purdue got beat handily in the next round by Georgia.
The bigger heartbreak came two years later for me as a Purdue fan. I had recently turned 21, and Purdue was headed to my hometown in the Sweet Sixteen. The path to the Final Four looked clear as could be. Purdue would have a big home crowd type of advantage, and they entered the regional semifinals as the highest seeded team remaining. Kansas, which would have owned the venue, had been shockingly upset in the second round. Speaking of shocking upsets, Bryce Drew, and the miracle shot Valparaiso Crusaders had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a #13 seed. Purdue came in as the favorites, and if they could get by #3 seeded Stanford they would have to either beat a #8 seed or a #13 seed to advance to the Final Four. I had no doubt I was going to witness my school go to the Final Four. Instead, they lost to Stanford 67-59 in a game that never quite seemed that close. I went into that weekend thinking that my school was going to the Final Four, in my hometown, and I was old enough to fully enjoy all of the festivities. Instead, I was back on campus watching the regional final between Rhode Island and Stanford from my room. It was really that moment that I came to realize that I would always like Purdue, but that loss with the previous years’ disappointments solidified for me in my mind that Purdue was always going to be that little engine that couldn’t quite get over the mountain. Unsurpisingly, Purdue lost my senior year after making a surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen, and then they lost to #8 seeded Wisconsin with a chance to go to the Final Four in 2000. At that time I was back living in St. Louis, and I remember my friends saying that Purdue would never have a better chance of making a Final Four. Purdue was always going to be a little over-acheiving type program that nobody outside the Big Ten took very seriously.
At the time, it was hard to disagree with them. Well, 22 years later those statements from my friends that did not grow up fixated on Big Ten basketball still ring clearly in my ears. Last night Purdue entered it’s regional semifinal game against a #15 seed. Not only was Purdue facing a #15 seed, but they had two dominant guys in the post that will likely be NBA draft picks, and a projected top 5 pick in their backcourt. Saint Peter’s is a #15 seed because they don’t have 3 NBA guys on their roster, and most small schools simply lack the frontcourt size and strength to consistently compete with the big boys. The other side of the bracket featured #4 seeded UCLA and #8 seeded North Carolina, both teams with good talent, but teams that had under-acheived all year. The path to the Final Four again seemed pretty clear, but then Saint Peter’s happened. Or maybe, Purdue happened.
For Purdue fans, last night’s game was an all-to-familiar game and feeling. Another game that had Purdue fans begrudgingly reflecting on a similar moment in Purdue basketball where they had their hearts ripped out. For a Purdue fan, it’s really not hard to come up with a game or moment that left you feeling very similar. But a #15 seed? Did that really just happen? As Purdue fans we expect a team that had really good regular season success, to fall short in the postseason, but this hurt in a different way. Instead of failing to win a game it should have, they became an easy target for jokes around the country.
Despite earning the school’s first ever #1 ranking back in December, this Purdue team won’t get to hang a banner of any sort. No reunions or rings, just another team that seemed to sweep up their fans and then drop them off at the curb just short of the intended destination while barely slowly down to drop off its passengers. More bumps and bruises for fans and alumni, but rest assured we’ll brush ourselves off and be back next year. Nearly, 23 years after graduation, I simply just smiled and shook my head. I’ve seen this before, and I’ll probably see it again, which is why everyone just keeps coming back.
However, the one thing that bothers me is the calling for Matt Painter’s job by some Purdue fans. Everything is magnified in March, and it is incredibly frustrating to see your team exit earlier than expected, especially when it seems to happen on a regular basis in the eyes of some. However, many fans fail to recognize the realities of this team. Despite earning a #1 ranking at one point this season, this was far from Matt Painter’s most talented team while at Purdue. Sure, Jaden Ivey is going to be a top 5 NBA draft pick, but he barely plays any defense and has no mid-range game at all. Both things he’ll work on while getting paid millions of dollars next year. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey will both likely be drafted by NBA teams, but both will have uphill battles to stick on NBA rosters in today’s game due to limitations in their game. Yet, when you have 3 NBA type guys on your roster, including the most phyisically gifted since Glenn Robinson, not hanging any banners and losing to a #15 seed seems like a collosal failure. However, I challenge Purdue fans to identify one of the 9 Big Ten teams that made the NCAA tournament where any of the other guys than the three I mentioned on Purdue’s roster would have been a starter. That’s not a knock on Purdue’s roll players, it’s just that they were limited.
Those limitations tap more into the great Purdue problem. Despite having one of the best environments in the entire country, Purdue always recruits like a mid-tier program. That’s not saying that Purdue doesn’t land really good talent, but Matt Painter rarely gets involved with top-50 prospects outside of Big Ten country. Painter’s strengths are getting the top prospects in his region that he chooses and then identifying guys that may be overlooked from outside of Big Ten country. He is a great developer of talent. He’s one of the few coaches in today’s game that can convince kids to join his program and then redshirt to gain strength, confidence, and experience that will make them a really good college basketball player. It’s why Purdue basketball isn’t and won’t fall off the map as long as he’s the coach. However, it may also be why Purdue’s ceiling always feels slightly capped.
It oftentimes felt the same way under Gene Keady’s guidance. Keady focused on landing the high level prospects in his backyard, and then identified the hard working guys that would fit into his system and culture. Team over talent. Those teams were very good, but the success in the NCAA tournament is a combination of elite talent, matchups, and who is hot at the right time. Those combinations never seemed to work out for Gene Keady, and it’s becoming a frustrating trend under Matt Painter as well.
However, the call for Matt Painter’s removal is just absurd. He’s going to win more games at the school than any other coach if he wants to. His recruiting is not slowing down, and when Tom Izzo steps down, he’ll be the dean of Big Ten coaches. Yet, that Final Four run is what keeps him from being mentioned with the likes of Bill Self, John Calipari, and Tom Izzo when it comes to the face of college basketball after Coach K’s march run concludes. Don’t think that Matt Painter isn’t keenly aware of that. The pressure is real. The comparisons between he and Gene Keady have already begun in terms of great coaches that never reached a Final Four. Growing up there was the narrative of how Gene Keady and Norm Stewart were arguably the two greatest coaches to never make a Final Four. Between them, they won 1,806 games, but never reached college basketball’s crowning jewel.
The reason I bring up Norm Stewart, is to remind Purdue fans of how dangerous a game it can be to simply expect that a really good college basketball program can pluck whoever they want to take over and expect even bigger success. Since Norm Stewart retired from Missouri after the 1999 season, they have had 8 LOSING seasons, twice as many Norm Stewart experienced in his 32 seasons as their head coach. Additionally, Missouri has seen it’s program investigated by the NCAA multiple times, as Quin Snyder and Frank Haith both realized how hard it is to consistently attract top talent to Columbia, Missouri. The Tigers routinely sold out every game and even built a state of the art new facility in 2004 that now is routinely two thirds empty for many games.
The knock on Norm Stewart was that he couldn’t win the big games when they mattered in March. Despite 967 career wins, he could only get Missouri to 4 Sweet Sixteens and 1 Elite Eight. In the 23 seasons he’s been gone, Missouri has made it past the first weekend of the tournament just twice, both times losing in the Elite Eight. Beginning next November, the Tigers will start the season with their sixth new head coach this century. Missouri fans still consider their program a national level type job, just like Purdue fans, despite never really arriving on the national stage.
The comparison between Missouri and Purdue may not be complete apples to apples in the eyes of many Boiler fans, but to those around the country I’d argue more would agree with me than against. The Purdue job is not as easy as Matt Painter makes it seem. Purdue basketball is in the same state as 3 other Power 5 conference teams. Indianapolis is a short drive for other national and regional powers to come and try to pry away the state’s top talent. To be successful at Purdue, it takes someone who understands the school and the state’s landscape. Taking nothing away from Matt Painter, but Purdue has benefitted tremendously from Indiana basketball’s uneven demise since Bobby Knight was ousted.
Additionally, I would ask Purdue fans who they think would come and take over their program that would do better than Matt Painter has. Louisville is searching for answers that Indiana hasn’t been able to answer for the last two decades. Florida basketball won back to back national titles not that long ago and is searching for answers. Their isn’t a clear ‘Purdue guy’ that’s ready to come in and elevate the program past its March stumbles. Cuonzo Martin was just fired from Missouri. Paul Lusk just rejoined the staff after an average tenure at Missouri St. Mike Shrewsberry just left to take over a Penn State program that can never seem to gain traction in the Big Ten. I don’t think the Purdue job is as attractive to established coaches as its fans want to believe.
During Gene Keady’s 25 years coaching at Purdue, he only had 10 guys drafted in the first two rounds of the NBA draft. I’m only using the first two rounds because that is all there is to the draft these days. In Matt Painter’s 18 seasons, he has had 8 guys drafted to the NBA, and he’ll likely be assured another two this season with Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams. Those are impressive numbers, but they don’t match up with the programs around the country that many people would call elite over the last 20 years. Not that NBA players guarantee college success, but it sure makes things a lot easier for the coaches once the ball gets rolled out. But coaching is still important, as evidenced by Indiana’s 11 guys drafted into the NBA and marginal success since Matt Painter was named coach at Purdue.
I’m not saying that Purdue fans should feel complacent with another March run that ended before it felt like it should have. Fans have every right to feel angry and disappointed with what felt like another golden opportunity to make a Final Four missed. We’ve been here before, but that also gives fans a false sense of security and entitlement. Purdue has been coached by only two men over the last 40+ seasons. That has led to incredible stability and success, with frustrating knocks against the glass ceiling. I would argue that Matt Painter has knocked on that ceiling more than Gene Keady did, and Keady has his name on the court. If not for a miracle finish by Virginia at the end of regulation in 2019, Matt Painter would likely be viewed in an entirely different way by fans and around the country. Matt Painter is making Purdue baskeball more of a consistent national name and bringing in more NBA talent, but for some reason he hasn’t truly broken through in March yet. However, if you throw enough rocks at glass it tends to break. I just hope I’m around long enough to see that glass ceiling shatter, and I firmly believe that Matt Painter is the guy to do it. We all just hope it’s sooner rather than later for a program that always wins but hasn’t made a Final Four in 42 seasons.