Matt Painter, Purdue Expectations, and Ranking College Basketball Coaches
That was the tweet that started the cathartic information dig.
I get bored when I’m sitting in a dark microscope room, waiting as the machine does science. Twitter dot com often fills these voids, because I enjoy making bad life decisions. And after Purdue choked away its best shot in years at a deep March run, Twitter (and Knucklehead Central) didn’t disappoint.
Tons of people were angry, frustrated, calling for firings, calling for Painter to get better (like our very own JMoney), and generally upset. Almost a week after the collapse, I asked what Purdue fans’ expectations for the basketball program…and got a few answers. But these two responses really got this post going:
The nonchalance when talking about a Sweet 16 every year, a Final Four every eight years, and a national title once in a while…it’s’ just so fascinating to me.
The first thing you learn when setting goals is that they should be realistic, but slightly out of reach just so you push yourself. In the abstract, all of those stated goals are fantastic, particularly for any program striving to be very good.
But then…you look at reality.
Even with my relatively limited knowledge of recent college basketball history, I took one look at these tweets and knew something was out of whack. What kind of schools held these standards? How many would be satisfied with a tourney appearance every year, and where does Purdue belong? Why don't I devote all of my free time to something more productive?
I decided to quantify all these questions, because science. And because, again, I make poor life decisions.
First, let’s set a common criteria for success and filter teams out from there. Personally, my goals for the Purdue basketball program have always been:
- Top 30 nationally.
- Top 3 in the Big Ten, and within striking distance for the Big Ten regular season title.
- Win 25 games.
- Reach the Sweet 16.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m expecting a trip to the Sweet 16 every single year without fail, or else fire Matt Painter and fire Morgan Burke and fire Darrell Hazell and fire Danny Hope again.
I just mean that falling short of those goals would make for a disappointing season, on some level (big or small). Purdue has enough history, enough talent, and enough pride in its program to justify these baselines.
But apparently I’m aiming too low.
Because I’m a lunatic, I went through all of the major conferences (plus some of the prominent mid-major schools) and found programs with similar standards (top 4 in conference, 25 wins, Sweet 16 berth). Here’s what I came up with, and please excuse my awfulness if I forgot someone obvious:
36 schools, all vying for something that (at minimum) matches the standards I set for Purdue. I just wanted to see if those standards were as “laughably low” as I have been told.
Note that these are the schools that currently have similar goals to Purdue. Historically, Virginia has been barely mediocre, but Tony Bennett has dramatically elevated the standard in Charlotteville. Dayton (a basketball-crazed school), Cal (making recent investments to upgrade football and basketball), and Wichita State (a historically-relevant mid-major, on the level of Gonzaga and Butler) all fall under similar umbrellas, so I included them too.
Now that we have a set of schools to look at, let’s dive a little deeper into the results.
First, let’s go with raw win totals. I admit, this is a very flawed evaluation tool, because Pitt’s 28 wins under Jamie Dixon were mostly against scrubs that couldn’t beat high school JV squads, while Michigan State’s 28 wins were often against the toughest competition in the country. There are plenty of ways this can be normalized to combat a lot of strength-of-schedule variations…but you’d zone out even earlier.
So let’s just go with raw win totals because that’s what you’ll remember when you bring this conversation up in a bar.
I looked at the seasons since 2000-2001, because that was the season right after Purdue made its last Elite Eight. And the turn of the century is pretty convenient for stuff like this.
I also looked at the number of times the school has surpassed 25 wins in a year. There you can see that Purdue, Michigan, and IU were the sub-20 win schools that everyone would call “nationally relevant”, but went through some underachieving years for one reason or another.
This is where you see the programs that really compete with Purdue. There are multiple lines you can draw here, but I think most of the schools below UNC (with the obvious exceptions of Louisville below and Memphis above) could be fairly lumped together. Every one of them are programs that want to fight for national relevancy, a conference title, 25 wins, and a Sweet 16 year in and year out.
Since 2000-2001, Purdue ranks towards the bottom of the list for regular season success.
Next, we’ll look at postseason success. Much like win totals, this can be misleading on its own as well. Single elimination tournaments, if taken without other context, can be a poor indication of success and failure. Seeding, game location, and sheer dumb luck can often take outsized roles in single-elimination tournaments…but this is most often the set of results that fans remember the most. The Bar Conversation Rule.
Here’s a raw look at each team’s postseason run of success since the 2001 tourney, sorted by the number of March Madness appearances:
Let’s look at a friendlier version of that data:
Total number of times each school has made a Sweet 16-or-better run in March.
Ever since World Champion Brian Cardinal took Purdue to an Elite Eight in the 2000 Tournament, Purdue has made a total of two Sweet 16s (2009 and 2010 tourneys). Unfortunately, Gene Keady couldn’t put together another potential contender after that super exciting run.
Matt Painter, however, had the talent to make some deeper runs and failed along the way. 2008, the Baby Boilers’ second year, saw Purdue finish second in the B10 and lose in the 2nd round to Xavier. 2009 probably maxed out at the Sweet 16, losing to #1-seeded UConn.
2010 was marred by The Knee. 2011 saw The Knee Part 2: Electric Boogaloo, but still peaked as the #6 team in the country on the backs of JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore. And then the VCU loss happened, a game that still haunts my freaking dreams.
2012 was an underrated run, on the backs of three of the best leaders to ever come through the program: Ryne Smith, Lewis Jackson, and Robbie Hummel. We also got to see a Keady-esque coaching performance by Painter, in that he maximized a roster that lacked super-elite talent and pushed eventual National Runner-Up Kansas to the absolute brink.
We’re not going to talk about 2013 and 2014 in this post. Pretty clear, abject failures by Purdue and Coach Painter. Sigh.
2015 was the Cincy loss. But Purdue started that season with Sweet 16 aspirations, and unacceptable November and December losses dragged the team’s fantastic B10 performance down to the dreaded 9-seed. Purdue would have played a historically-great Kentucky team in the second round.
And then there’s 2016. An easy team to love, a team with the depth and extremely favorable seeding, a team that suffered no major injuries, a team that didn’t have any truly glaring weaknesses (setting aside the point guard issue). Then Chris Beard and Little Rock happened.
- The expectations I put forward at the beginning of this post are extremely fair, and not at all “laughable”.
- It’s also completely fair for Purdue fans to be frustrated at the basketball program’s current rate of success, and calls for an elevated level of consistency from Gene Keady and Matt Painter aren’t off base.
At this point, I really wanted to end this post, because you’ve probably already zoned out. But there were too many coaching questions to ignore Matt Painter’s success rate, especially since we have a significant 11-year run to draw conclusions from.
To compare, let’s take the major coaches from all those schools (limiting to currently-relevant dudes, both in and out of college basketball), and scale results from their first 11 seasons at major basketball schools as such:
1 point for a regular season league championship, 1 point for a Sweet 16, 2 points for an Elite 8, 4 points for a Final Four, 6 points for National Runner-Up, and 8 points for a National Championship.
(I know league titles should be weighted differently based on conference strength and stuff, but The Bar Conversation Rule is in effect.)
Alright, maybe those are some unfair comparisons. Let’s look at the second half of that list:
There we go.
Matt Painter, with his two Big Ten titles and two Sweet 16 runs, falls right in the middle of that pack…which means that he can recruit and coach with some of the better coaches in the country. It’s completely fair to hold him to those relatively-high standards, and ask for improvements when he doesn’t get there, mostly because we all know what he’s capable of achieving.
Some of my takeaways from the coaching results:
- The best case comparables for Matt Painter’s career:
Bo Ryan, Jim Larranaga, maybe Mark Few
- The ‘worst’ case comparables for Matt Painter’s career:
Steve Alford, Mark Gottfried, Bruce Weber
- The most realistic comparables for Matt Painter’s career:
Mike Brey, Jamie Dixon, Tom Crean, Dana Altman
- Holy crap, Mike Brey and Jamie Dixon and Tom Crean and Matt Painter are all taller white guys with slicked back hair. #illuminati
Oh wait, most college basketball coaches are white dudes with slicked back hair. Nevermind.
- The only other coaches who achieved any level of sustained success after a 6-year drought (based on this set of goals) have been Mike Brey and Dana Altman.
- John Beilein is probably outdoing Painter at his own game.
- All of the coaches mentioned are extremely respected among national media, but have had frustrations built up with their fan bases. Coach Painter fits that description.
We, the self-proclaimed rational contingency of Purdue fans, hold Painter to these standards because we see that he can put together teams capable of making big runs…but, for one reason or another, Painter consistently fails to clear the bar of success most Purdue fans have set.
Should Purdue fans hold their standards at this level? After digging through the data, I think we should.
Should Coach Painter be talked about among the 35 (or so) best coaches in the country? I think so, and the data holds him in that esteem.
Has Coach Painter failed to consistently reach expectations, and is it fair to demand more? The data gives us a pretty clear “yes”.
Should we call for his firing? Not unless we can get one of those other guys on the phone, which tells me that answer is a pretty unequivocal “no”.
- Brad Stevens' career path is still pretty unbelievable.
- I will forever pledge my undying loyalty to Bob Huggins. Win more than 26 games? Check. Wear tracksuits? Check. Exhibit a perpetual contempt for nonsense? Check. I hope Coach Paint slowly morphs into Huggy Bear like one of those Animorphs books from the 90s.
- UCLA fired Ben Howland. Yeah.
- Scott Drew has violated dozens of rules to get results comparable to Matt Painter. Well done, Scott.
- Since 1953, Kansas State has only had two bad head coaches. Tex Winter, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Dana Altman, (two-coach mediocrity from 1994 to 2006), Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, and Bruce Weber. For a program that’s not really nationally recognized, they’ve had some pretty decent names come through. Shoutout to being a basketball nerd and getting excited by this random factoid.
- Shaka Smart and Archie Miller don’t look great on this chart, but both still have a couple years to build on their extreme
- I suddenly understand Memphis fans’ frustrations with Josh Pastner.
- Buzz Williams and Frank Martin both win the Bo Ryan Memorial Award for "Guy Who I Thought Has Been Coaching For Centuries But Has Really Only Been Coaching For A Handful Of Years".
- Cuonzo Martin, a guy who many fans are clamoring for, has made only one tournament run in his first five years at Tennessee and Cal (the 2014 Sweet 16), has never won his conference, and has failed to build on the Jaylen Brown/Ivan Rabb 2015 recruiting class. That talented (yet young) group went out in the first round of the tournament, and that program went through a mini-scandal just before the first weekend of March Madness. Just like Shaka and Archie, Zo has had a pretty brief high-major career, so there’s still plenty of time…but there’s nothing to indicate that he’d be a step up from Coach Painter, and I generally side with consistency within a program. But I do understand the “fresh face” argument, and it’s not the worst idea in the world. I just don’t think it should be done right now.
Let us know if you see anything interesting that wasn't mentioned.