This Is What Matt Painter Is
This is Matt Painter, for better or -- often at the most visible moments -- worse. It’s time to come to grips with reality. This is what Purdue basketball is during the Matt Painter era. We’ve got plenty of evidence to look at and the evidence is not pretty. Purdue does not evolve -- Purdue goes backwards at crucial times.
The good coaches understand what makes their teams good and plays to those strengths. They trust the process that got them there and ensure their guys stay as comfortable as possible. Not complacent, but comfortable in the system being implemented. They do not, for example, yank both point guards during crunch time of an NCAA Tournament game and ask guys who haven’t run the point all season to do so against a press. They don’t run their star center into the ground without a breather so that he’s exhausted when he’s most needed. They ensure their players know exactly what to do when they inbound the ball with four seconds to go in regulation and a tie score.
If some of these actually sound kind of...elementary...well, you’re right, they are. And yet somehow, Purdue basketball remains in this very weird, narrow strip of basketball real estate that allows them to win a lot of game -- 26-9 record this season -- but also manage to disappoint. To whit: this Purdue team was ranked the entire season. They’re 12/10 in the latest polls. They hadn’t lost consecutive games all season. And they were strong down the stretch in their Big Ten schedule and in the BTT. But much like Keady teams of yore, February was one thing and March was an entirely different thing.
How come Johnny Hill was taking a crucial drive late in overtime? Some feel he was fouled but it sure looked like he was just out of control and slipped and fell. Regardless of whether you think he got jobbed, this is a guy who clearly did not have the green light to shoot tonight, as Arkansas-Little Rock virtually dared him to take wide open threes all game. And yet, there he was, with guys like Vince Edwards and AJ Hammons not touching the ball.
How come Isaac Haas didn’t play in the final twenty minutes of action (9:39 of regulation and all 10:00 of overtime) after picking up an inadvertent “Flagrant 1” with the score 50-40? Now, I’m definitely one to go with your best guys during crucial minutes, but AJ was gassed late and with Haas available, how does AJ not get at least some kind of rest there? Perhaps with a little rest during the second half he could have been the difference at the end of regulation.
With 4:06 to go it was still a 14 point game, at 63-49. Think about that, folks. Let it wash over you. With 3:33 to go, it was 65-52, Boilers. How does this team still not know how to close? Last year vs. Cincinnati, it was a seven point lead with under 45 seconds go go that was blown. This year it was more time but an even larger lead. This game looked over at that 3 minute mark, honestly. And maybe it looked that way to the Boilers, too. That’s where coaching needs to instill a killer instinct within a team so that they never remove their boot from the opposition’s throat.
Matt Painter had AJ Hammons -- a soon-to-be NBA player -- for four seasons and not once did they win an NCAA Tournament game. Not a Big Ten title, of course, either, nor a Big Ten Tournament championship. So what will be the legacy of the AJ/Raphael Purdue teams? That they saw the bottom of the conference and fought back to be among the top third? I suppose that’s it, and let’s be honest -- that’s not all that memorable.
That isn’t to say we won’t remember AJ and Raphael and remember them fondly -- we will. But to have a lasting legacy, you need to actually accomplish something that can be pointed to. And while this may sound like I’m heading towards a rip against those two seniors, I’m not. I think those guys gave everything they could to this team. AJ didn’t need to come back for his senior year. Ray didn’t need to commit as a freshman in high school. But those guys did those things and dedicated themselves to this program and to getting better. They both won defensive player of the year awards and became the heart and soul of this squad. In the end, they were done in by a nervous coach.
Matt Painter does not know how to take his teams to the next level. I cannot say it any more plainly than that. Whether it was the middling team last year that should have beaten Cinci or the 2010 team that went to the Sweet 16 with Chris Kramer or the 2011 team that had Final Four aspirations (with JaJuan and E’Twaun) and lost in the round of 32 to an inexperienced VCU team...or this team, which has talent like AJ Hammons, Vince Edwards, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas -- potentially all eventual NBA players -- it always ends the same way. The personnel changes, but the issues remain the same.
An inability to finish. A lack of killer instinct. Complete befuddlement against the press. Painter looking back at his players on the court looking to him for guidance with a look like, “Hell, I don’t know...you guys figure it out!”
I joked with the BS guys before the tournament started that in making my bracket picks, I didn’t know if I could pick Purdue to go beyond the Sweet 16 because it seemed a little like people felt in the 1400s about whether the world was flat or round. I haven’t seen that the world is round and that playing beyond the Sweet 16 is possible, so I’m not sure it really exists. Now I’m beginning to long for the days when Purdue fans were proud of Purdue’s modest accomplishment of always winning in the first round. That seems so long ago.
The Boilers last NCAA Tournament victory was in 2012 with Robbie Hummel in uniform. The last time they made it as far as the Sweet 16 was in 2010 -- Boilerdowd and I were there in Houston for that, Chris Kramer’s last game. The last time they reached the Elite Eight was a decade before that, in 2000. And the last Final Four was two more decades before that, in 1980.
Only a handful of teams get to expect Final Fours -- Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas, for example. Beyond that, obviously, it’s something that only comes along once in a while. For Purdue fans, it’s beginning to feel like once a lifetime might be asking a lot. Because if the 2011 and 2016 teams can’t even get within a whiff of such a thing, you have to ask yourself...what will it take? What will change the tide? And let’s not talk about it being random and that luck or chance will one day take the Boilers there. Luck will not smile on this program for four consecutive March games. It will take skill coupled with opportunistic and steady coaching. Will we ever see that combo? Hard to say.
We said earlier in the season -- several times -- that this was a significant season for Matt Painter. There really were no excuses for underachievement or collapses this year. There were no major injuries, no sudden transfers, no cancerous malcontents on the team. This team had talent, depth, experience and hunger. It was time for Coach Painter to bring it all together.
Yet here we are. The first day of the tournament and it’s all over for Purdue...again.
Much like earlier in the season, this isn’t a call to fire Matt Painter. Mainly because I’m not delusional enough to think Purdue would ever consider firing him. This, to Purdue athletics, is a rousing success. A fun season, lots of wins, good crowds, and an appearance in the NCAA tournament. Truly winning isn’t important to Purdue University, even to the athletic department. To them, Matt Painter is perfection -- a clean program, nice kids, a highly respectable number of wins (usually), and NCAA tourney games.
Matt Painter will not be taking Purdue to the next level. It’s time we all got used to it.