Does the Caleb Swanigan Era Rejuvenate the Painter Brand?
Matt Painter came to take over a once-proud basketball program that was crumbling in the final days of Gene Keady’s tenure. He didn’t walk into an easy situation and he had only one season of head coaching experience under his then-shorter belt. After one clunky year, Painter turned the Boilermakers back into an NCAA tournament team in ’06-’07. And then the following year, he landed the vaunted “Baby Boilers” of Johnson, Hummel, Martin and Moore. It’s important to remember, of course, that those guys weren’t hugely vaunted, if you will, coming in. Hummel was a guy that Terry Hutchens, noted IU shill, famously said wouldn’t amount to much and could be a nice support player. JaJuan Johnson was oceans away from being an all-conference player with NBA potential. Moore was probably the guy whose game was the most ready. And, of course, Scott Martin missed his girlfriend or something.
That team gelled in ways nobody could have predicted, of course, and Matt Painter deserved (and got) a lot of credit for that. They also did something that not all teams do – they got better. They won a game in the tourney and then went to the Sweet 16 back to back (’09 and ’10) with that 2010 season under the pall of Robbie’s knee shredding in the Barn in February. That was the team right there and most Purdue fans know it. We knew it then, as I recall.
Then the Boilers regrouped, though, and Painter did what he does – he got the team prepared and they began to mow through the ’10-’11 season with purpose. JJ and Smooge were seniors, Rob was acting as a coach as he recovered from a second knee tear the previous October and the Boilers appeared to have some depth, with guys like Terone Johnson, Kelsey Barlow, DJ Byrd, LewJack, Ryne Smith and John Hart. (Man, I look at that and am reminded that that team really was good.) The shallow part of that team was the front line aside from JaJuan. It was a super guard-heavy roster, leaving masonry guys like Patrick Bade, Travis Carroll and Sandy Marcius to pick up frontline minutes.
And, of course, as we remember, they ran into Shaka Smart’s 15 minutes of fame in the second round and that was that. The Baby Boilers four years in the Big Ten were remarkable, really: Second, Second (and BTT champs), First, Second.
You don’t get banners for second place, of course, but that’s a sustained run of quality that could easily have been another conference title or two. Matt Painter was five years in at Purdue and had built a team that but for a few crappy breaks could have easily made a Final Four. As we’ve discussed many times, that stretch was perhaps the closest Purdue has come to having a national title be a realistic possibility. Painter couldn’t be questioned too much after this start. He was just over 40 and was winning a lot of games. He was even the honorary starter at the Indy 500 in 2009. Dare I say, Matt Painter was on the verge of owning the state of Indiana from a CBB perspective?
Lewis Jackson, Rob Hummel and Ryne Smith were around for one more year and it was super-fun for fans, seeing Rob get back to playing such a critical role. The love-fest on that senior night was terrific and Purdue went into the NCAA Tourney without huge expectations but with all of us knowing they could wreck somebody’s sh-t if the cards fell right. And, of course, they almost did as Purdue got a 10 seed, hopped into the second round and led Kansas by ten with under four minutes to play. In sports just as in life, there are key moments and junctures. Winning that game and taking the 2-seed path with that roster of experience talent could honestly have led to a deep run. Oh, what might have been.
Then, of course, the worm turned for Mr. Painter. Without those aforementioned guys who were totally “Painter guys,” Purdue was now relying on the likes of the Johnson brothers, DJ Byrd, Jacob Lawson, etc. AJ Hammons and Ray Davis were freshman and Purdue….fell down, landing in the CBI in 2013 with a losing record (and then losing at home during it). The following year, the collapse was complete, as Purdue finished in the absolutely basement of the Big Ten, despite having what seemed like enough talent to, you know, not finish behind….everyone.
Help was on the way, however, as that year Painter welcomed three four-star guys in Bryson Scott, Basil Smotherman and Kendall Stephens. This of course followed the year in which Painter landed three other four-star guys in AJ, RayDay, and RonJon. Six four-star guys over a two year period is definitely good, but you don’t have to have a long memory to recall that 2/3 of those guys left the program. Painter was following up some middling recruiting during the Baby Boiler era with guys leaving in droves (toss in Donnie Hale, Jacob Lawson, Anthony Johnson). Had Painter lost his touch? Did he not know how to relate to the types of players he was now recruiting?
AJ and Ray Davis did their best to pull the team upwards and they succeeded. Purdue got back to the Tournament in 2015 and 2016 but those two guys – perhaps the most beloved Purdue guys of the Painter era outside of Hummel? – were unable to win even a single tournament game, as the program famously choked away two seemingly certain wins.
Do you know what else was happening as Purdue was entering their decline following the missed opportunity of the JJ/E’Twaun senior year? Butler was going to back-to-back title games and Brad Stevens took ownership of Matt Painter’s budding state of Indiana application. What’s frustrating there is that Purdue and Painter had the polarizing Tom Crean era down south happening during this timeframe as well. And while your biggest competitor for talent in the state has a guy who even their own fans can’t agree on, that’s the time take over….and Purdue was so close to it. They were the more likable team with the more likable guys and the coach who wasn’t a weirdo. But they never took the next step.
When you look at the total body of evidence, as we’ve said over and over, it’s very hard to make a case that Painter is a bad coach. He’s won 65% of his games at Purdue and 60% of his conference games. In twelve years, he’s won the conference twice and a BTT once, while advancing in the NCAA tourney seven times and going to the Sweet 16 three times.
However, I think it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that 2013-16 damaged Matt Painter’s brand. He wasn’t able to hang onto recruits, he wasn’t able to get in the tourney and then when he did, his teams couldn’t close. That very quickly begins to become your calling card when you have such public bed-wettings. Brad Stevens was turning Butler into a national power and Tom Crean was getting IU back onto its feet and into the Sweet 16 while ascending to the top of the national rankings.
Does the Caleb Swanigan two-year stretch serve as evidence that Matt Painter is trending back upwards after the particularly noteworthy letdown of not accomplishing much of anything with AJ Hammons, an unquestionable NBA player, on his roster? Or does it serve as even further damning evidence that Matt Painter simply isn’t ever going to get up the mountain if he has surefire NBA players and can’t get within shouting distance of the Final Four?
Along with bringing in Biggie, he’s landed Carsen Edwards and Nojel Eastern, two more four-star guys. If this leads to a consistent run of success and another five-star or two in the next few years, then I think it’s fair to say his rep is solid. But let’s be careful here – was Caleb Swanigan a player Matt Painter landed by outrecruiting Tom Izzo or did it have more to do with the fact that Roosevelt Barnes is a Purdue guy and Caleb wanted to play the 4 (which it was made clear he would do from the jump at Purdue) instead of the 5 at Michigan State (while fighting for minutes)?
Matt Painter remains a curious case and it continues to feel difficult to cast a full judgment on his career. Maybe that’s really okay, too, as Painter is only 46 years old. Maybe the best is yet to come. Maybe we’ll look back and see these recent years as the building blocks of Matt Painter’s ascension to a Final Four coach.