Finishing last sucks, no matter what sport you're watching and no matter what team you're rooting for. Sometimes, though, it sparks a different set of emotions in the fans who follow a last-place team. If you're watching the 1919-28 Phillies (last in the NL 7 of those 10 seasons) or the 1953-59 Chicago Cardinals (last in the NFL East 4 of 7 seasons, tied for last another season) or the 1974-82 Capitals (last in various NHL divisions 6 of their first 8 seasons), it sucks, but you kind of expect it.
If you're a Purdue men's basketball fan, though, there's no reason to expect it. The 2013-14 season marked just the fifth time that the Boilers finished alone in last place ... in 109 seasons. In contrast, Penn State has finished alone in last five times in the 21st century; even Indiana's finished last more than five times. (In fact, they finished last three straight seasons, from 1912-13 through 1914-15.)
There's been some conversation about how bad this team looks compared to what we expected, so I thought I'd take a look at the other last-place teams to see how they compare. Join me as I pull off my fingernails one at a time. (Of course, I'd only have to use one hand.)
1915-16 Western Conference: 2-10, 9th place, 4-10 overall
The BEE ONE GEE was neither Big nor Ten yet; Michigan State had yet to replace Chicago, and Michigan was still closed in its room with the door shut, refusing to come out, so the Western Conference had just nine teams. As was the standard in those days, teams played pretty much whoever they wanted, and there was no attempt to play an even schedule. Three conference teams won just two games, but Iowa played only six (and won all nine non-conference games, finishing 11-4), while Ohio State finished 2-8 and Purdue went 2-10, beating only Northwestern and Indiana in Western play. Wins over UW-LaCrosse and Wabash rounded out their schedule.
Wisconsin was the conference champion, at 11-1 and 20-1 overall, and they thrashed the Boilers in both games, 33-17 in West Lafayette and 35-22 in Madison. Purdue also suffered double-digit losses to Illinois twice (22-11 and 29-19), Minnesota (29-18) and Indiana (39-29), and while the Illini were also solid (9-3, 13-3), Indiana was not (3-5, 6-7), and Minnesota was only slightly better (6-6, 11-6). Purdue had matching 25-19 losses to Ohio State, but did not play Iowa or Chicago, which is probably a good thing. While we don't have a lot of data for games that were played nearly 100 years ago, it's safe to say this was a pretty bad team. The magnitude of a 16-point loss is hard to judge when teams are averaging 20-30 points per game ... but suffice it to say that only 19 of 163 schools had a worse record than Purdue that season.
This season was R.E. Vaughn's last as Purdue coach; his 6-5 record in 1912-13 proved to be his best. Ward Lambert would succeed him after this season, and except for 1917-18, Lambert would guide the team through World War II, recording six outright Western/Big Ten titles, including 1939-40. For some reason, the NCAA invited second-place Indiana that year, and they went and won the thing, so there you go.
1951-52 Big Ten: 3-11, 10th place, 8-14 overall
Nearly four decades passed before the Boilers would hit rock bottom again, this time under Ray Eddy. Unlike the first time, this season started out in promising fashion. After an opening road loss to Kansas State, Purdue rattled off five straight wins, including a four-point win against Butler in the Hoosier Classic in Indy, before losing to 19th-ranked Notre Dame in the same tournament, 64-50. They began conference play with a 79-64 win in Madison ... but did not win again until the return match in Lambert Fieldhouse. Six conference opponents beat the Boilers, led by #1 Illinois, who crushed Purdue 84-57 in Champaign on their way to a Final Four appearance. Coincidentally, the team the Illini lost to in the Final Four, St. John's, also beat the Boilers during this run, 64-53.
A loss to Iowa prevented Purdue from recording back-to-back conference wins; Minnesota and Illinois completed sweeps of the Boilers, and Michigan finished the season with a 68-60 win in what proved to be a battle for last place (the Wolverines were 4-10). Purdue registered just one win over a ranked team, 82-65 over #17 Louisville, and while they were competitive in most of their losses to unranked teams, their 82-77 loss to #14 Indiana was the only one of seven that wasn't a double-digit loss.
1962-63 Big Ten: 2-12, 10th place, 7-17 overall
In what would no doubt be impossible today, Eddy kept chugging along, leading unimpressive team after unimpressive team. His next two squads shared the Big Ten basement, and it wasn't until 1955-56 that the Boilers even found the top half of the conference. They did manage to tie for second three years of four, though, and after a third-place finish in 1961-62, Purdue fans could be forgiven for thinking better times were here to stay.
They were not. In the absence of All-American Terry Dischinger, the 1962-63 team reversed their 17-7 record from the previous season, crashing to the bottom of the conference. This time, non-conference play wasn't nearly as exciting, as the Boilers managed to beat only Detroit, Wabash, Butler, Yale, and Drake. Conference play was even worse, as Eddy's squad reeled off eight consecutive losses, effectively burying themselves before February was a week old. Only a sweep of the ninth-place Spartans saved Purdue from a winless conference record, something they've never managed to do (and hopefully never will).
Purdue fared somewhat better in terms of competitiveness, losing to conference co-champion Ohio State by 4 in Lambert and to the other co-champ, Illinois, by 8 at home. Indiana escaped with a one-point win, 74-73, and Minnesota (twice), Iowa and Wisconsin all failed to keep the Boilers down by ten or more. Still, there was a pretty clear divide between the top eight schools and the Boilers and Spartans, and after a promising 1961-62 season, 1962-63 had to be considered a failure.
It didn't cost Eddy his job, though. Despite being the first man to coach Purdue to multiple outright last-place finishes, he stayed two more seasons, posting 12-12 records in each before he was replaced by George King. King had, let's say, a slightly better record at the helm.
2005-06 Big Ten: 3-13, 11th place, 9-19 overall
Three coaches came and went, all with Final Four appearances under their belts (although Fred Schaus only managed it in an NIT, he also brought home the title, unlike King and Rose), before Purdue fans saw another outright last-place finish. When Gene Keady took over for Lee Rose after the 1979-80 season, when Cheatin' Larry Brown's UCLA squad knocked Purdue out of a possible championship appearance in Market Square (naturally, Brown's team was penalized after he left; SMU might want to put any NCAA appearance banners up where they can be easily removed), he rattled off nine straight winning seasons, each one with the Boilers finishing in the top half of the conference. After a rough five-year stretch, Keady got three more outright conference titles and a pair of second-place finishes before he got to the end of the line.
Starting in 2000-01, the Boilers were under .500 in conference play five years in six, culminating in back-to-back 3-13 marks, with the first under Keady and the second under Matt Painter, who was gamely picking up the pieces left by Keady's indifference. Penn State kept Purdue out of the cellar with a 1-15 record the previous season, but in 2005-06, Ed DeChellis got the Lions to 6-10, in part because of a sweep of Painter's first Purdue team. While they managed to beat Wofford, South Alabama, and Chicago State in early non-conference play, and then New Orleans, IPFW, and Tennessee-Martin prior to a loss to Memphis in the non-conference finale, the games we're more likely to remember are the 97-57 thrashing by Florida State (who finished 5th in the ACC), the fourth-worst loss in Purdue history; a six-point loss to an Evansville team that finished 10-19; a 25-point loss at Michigan State, a team that went 8-8 in conference play; and a four-game stretch to close the season in which the Boilers did not break 60.
Here's a list of road games the Boilers won: . That's right. Purdue was 0-12 on the road, following an 0-10 road campaign in 2004-05. They lost 29 consecutive road games over four seasons, dropping their last two in 2003-04 as well as their first five in 2006-07, before Penn State fell 69-59.
sports-reference.com calculates SRS for these teams, and the 0.40 for this squad is easily the lowest for Purdue for the years in which it's been calculated (going back to 1979-80). The previous year's team, with a 7-21 record, has a 5.93 SRS; by contrast, the 1987-88 team with a #1 seed had a 21.83 SRS. Yeah, this team was not good ... and yet Painter turned it around the next season, posting double-digit SRSs for the next six seasons. After that ...
2013-14 Big Ten: 5-13, 12th place, 15-16 overall
The arrival of Nebraska meant that 11th was no longer last, and after a desultory 2012-13 campaign left the Boilers tied for seventh in the expanded conference, the current edition dropped three more conference games and five spots, becoming the first Purdue team to finish 12th, just as the team above was the first Purdue team to finish 11th. At 8.43, their SRS is fourth-worst in Purdue history, but miles above the 2005-06 squad and a ways above the 2004-05 squad (5.93) that was Keady's last.
SRS agrees with kenpom in that the conference was stronger in 2012-13 - three teams topped 20, while only Iowa does in 2013-14, and they're certainly not the best in the conference. The difference is at the bottom. Northwestern is worst this season at 4.6, but two teams, Nebraska and Penn State, were worse in 2012-13. This season, only the Wildcats are under 8.0, and just as Penn State's sweep put Painter's first team in last place, Northwestern's sweep put this team in the cellar.
A 15-point loss to Washington State in November was unexpected, not just because of the opponent but because of the magnitude as well. Since then, the Boilers lost another 15-point game (at MSU), an 18-point game (at OSU) and a 19-point game (at Nebraska), but 9 of their 16 losses were by single digits, including two overtime losses. (It should be noted that four of the Boilers' wins were by a single possession.) The lack of 20-point losses is one thing that separates this team from other last-place Purdue squads; combine that with the overall strength of the conference (in 2005-06, Illinois had a 17.2 SRS, tops in the conference, and no Big Ten team made the Sweet 16), and it'd be fair to say that this was the strongest of the five last-place teams.
That said, only two of these five were in the modern era (since 1984-85, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams), and the other team was clearly going to struggle. Painter had no shortage of scholarship players this time, although these Boilers are young (1.34 years of experience, 292nd in DI; while kenpom's experience data doesn't go back that far, in the following season, Purdue had just 1.49 years of experience, so draw your own conclusions). Like that team, this team struggles at both ends of the court, but it can't shoot, either, and for as much flak as TJ has received (in some areas, deservedly so), AJ is as much of a problem - Terone was actually more effective on offense (102.4 ORtg vs. Hammons' 98.5), in large part due to the difference in turnover rating (24.4 for AJ, 13.4 for Terone). When so many possessions involve forcing the ball to AJ when he's not in good position, or watching Bryson Scott shoot another hopeless two (.357 from two-point land), or Jay Simpson miss a shot and not get fouled, well, the problem can't be a player when it's pretty much everyone. (The players with the best ORtgs are the ones with the least usage; I doubt Travis Carroll would have kept up his 138.1 had he been involved in more than one-tenth of the possessions while he was on the floor.)
If Painter had been able to sort out at least one of the offense's problems, this Purdue team could easily have tied for 8th just by flipping the Northwestern results. If he'd been able to get the defense working for more than a handful of possessions, it would probably have had a similar effect. Instead, we got a disappointing last-place team, with nothing to suggest that next season will be any better, and if it isn't, well, I guess you could at least say that Painter left things the way he found them.