On Expectations and What’s “Acceptable”
There’s an interesting subplot playing out within what some refer to as “Purdue Twitter” these days. As the Boilers work their way through the grind of the dead-of-winter Big Ten games, with the NCAA tournament still nearly two months away, they stand with a respectable record of 17-4, 5-3 in the Big Ten, and a #21 national ranking. The Boilers are 2 ½ games back of conference-leading Iowa, but are actually somewhat buried in terms of winning the conference since they’ve already been swept by the Hawkeyes.
As anyone who reads this site knows, one of those losses was at home in a game the Boilermakers led by 19 just before halftime. In both games, Purdue gave up 50 to the Hawkeyes in the second half. The game in Mackey was 50-26 in favor of the cornmen in the second stanza. Many Purdue fans found this to be… unacceptable.
Whether we’re talking about that game or the no-show against Butler in Indianapolis in December or the sleepwalking loss versus the hapless Illini, the point is that some Purdue fans were a bit frustrated at the performance of this team in those games.
As with all things on the internet and especially on Twitter, the “well, actually” crowd then swooped in to either mock those who are fired up at those losses or to tell them to settle down, adjust their expectations, etc. Somehow, there is always a justification for Purdue continually getting their asses handed to them in the Crossroads Classic or not having beaten Butler in forever or losing to an Iowa team that they had down by almost twenty just before halftime. And regardless of whether these justifications or arguments have any merit, there is one thing I think many people are overlooking here and that is context.
This is a team which many of us – even many of those cynical among us – thought could reasonably have aspirations of a deep March run. Final Four? It still sounds like dreamland to so many Purdue fans, but for the first time in a while, it felt like Purdue had a team with enough depth, talent and a fortunately open field in front of them in the NCAA that could possibly… maybe sorta… mean that a deep run was a possibility.
Then they got off to a great start and they weren’t just winning – they were winning by double digits and weren’t really being tested, it seemed. Given that they have two viable 7+ footers at center, a freshman who physically looks like a near-NBA player and tremendous surrounding complimentary talent, it began to feel even more reasonable to expect big things this year.
And maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe the window won’t be open quite as long as it feels. Sure, we all look at the likelihood of next year including Swanigan, Haas, Vince, Cline, maybe Stephens and feel like that could be fun, too – and it will be – but isn’t this the year where Painter should prove himself? He’s got AJ as a senior, Haas backing him up, Swanigan being a double-double factory, Vince beginning to blossom and Ray Davis doing his senior victory lap. As noted earlier, if you also consider how wide-open the NCAA looks this year and you factor in some disappointing years recently from CMP – basically since signed his extension – and you begin to see why some feel he needs to prove his mettle this year. How much better can things line up for Purdue? This is a big year, really, and another early flame-out will justify questions of when or if this program will ever take the next step.
I had an exchange on twitter last night where (not for the first time) someone put up this strawman of Purdue fans who are sharpening their spears and demanding Matt Painter be fired.
Who are these people? I haven’t seen a groundswell of calls for canning Purdue’s head coach. And let me be clear that nobody at Boiled Sports has called for his firing, either. What we have suggested is that it’s not unreasonable to be more requiring of Mr. Painter.
This is a guy who makes $2.5M per year to coach Purdue. And, look, making tournaments is lovely. It’s a nice thing to do. But a lot of teams make the tournament. Really good coaches then make runs. And if you want to be considered a next level coach or a next level program and you want recruits to line up to come play for you, you need to sometimes have strong years where you become a national story.
No one is suggesting Matt Painter isn’t a good coach. He’s a fine coach. And he’s a guy who averages well over twenty wins per season. But has he done anything in his eleven seasons at Purdue to make you think he’s the guy to take this team to the Final Four? A few facts to consider…
- This season marks the first time they’ve been ranked since 2011.
- Until this season, his only ranked Purdue teams were the four years of the Baby Boilers core.
- They have not won a tournament game in four years.
- If they lose in the first round this season, AJ Hammons will have played at Purdue for four years and never have experienced an NCAA Tournament victory.
- In his ten-plus seasons, Purdue has won one regular season conference title and one conference tournament title. So if you measure success on that localized, conference level, there’s that to chew on.
Now… that all looks like I’m saying Matt Painter sucks. I’m actually not saying that! Because I believe in this program and I think there are many things pointing in the right direction. And that’s the context I want to provide here. Nobody is saying that things are bleak for Purdue basketball. If you want bleak, look at the football program.
No, what I’m saying is that Purdue basketball has a huge opportunity this season and that is why it’s perfectly okay to expect more from Matt Painter and the coaching staff.
If you continue to tell yourself and others that you shouldn’t be bothered when Purdue fails to show up for a game (Butler or Illinois) or gets their doors blown off by a good team (Iowa X2), well, I guess that’s fine. You’re attempting to measure your expectations in a hopeless attempt to stave off disappointment.
I get that 17-4 is a nice record. But you can’t look at it “in a vacuum,” as the expression goes. The fact remains that if Purdue has these kinds of mental lapses in the NCAA tournament… it’s over. Mental lapses like when you’re leading by seven with 45 seconds to go and find a way to lose it. It doesn’t matter how nice a resume you built in the preceding months.
Purdue basketball is in an advantageous position in 2016 and it’s in that rare spot where the season could be remembered in vastly different ways… and neither would be totally shocking. Limp down the stretch and lose all the games to good teams (or teams who know how to press/trap), and it’s whiskeypepto worthy. Realize their potential and be the team that we’ve seen win by 50, win in Madison and rise all the way to #9 in the nation….and, well, who knows?
The point is, the time is now for Matt Painter and his charges. Can he take them to that proverbial next level? It’s more than fair to have raised expectations at this point.