Matt Painter Crashes Into His Ceiling
When Isaac Haas went down, expectations changed. Of course. Your starting center gets hurt and can't play, and you lose a one-of-a-kind, 7'2", 290lb monster. A truly peerless basketball player. And who knows what impact he could have had tonight.
And yet, it seems dishonest to claim that his absence made all the difference in tonight's season-ending 78-65 loss to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Because in watching the game, that doesn't appear to be the case at all. Would Haas had made a difference in the 17 team turnovers? The six total bench points? Eight total assists? Doubtful.
Deadspin's "Deadcast" NCAA Tournament preview podcast a couple of weeks ago featuring Drew Magary commenting on Purdue, saying that it seems like they're always halfway decent, but never seem to do anything noteworthy in the tournament. His co-host acknowledged his statement, and then they moved on, because what else is there to really talk about? Purdue has had some really good teams in its history, including this year's team, but what do they have to show with it? An assortment of Sweet Sixteen appearances for sure, but it's hard to tell what that is really worth anymore. Purdue's last Elite Eight appearance is old enough to vote, its last Final Four is starting to notice its hair thinning and turning grey.
We have the excuse, the Isaac Haas injury, but Loyola-Chicago doesn't have an Isaac Haas. Neither does Kansas State, or Florida State, or even Texas Tech for that matter. A team that averages over 40% shooting from three should do better than a 13 point loss in the Sweet Sixteen. A team with four senior starters shouldn't turn the ball over 17 times (10 of those turnovers by the three senior starters still playing), or commit 19 personal fouls (eight by the seniors.)
Make no mistake, this was a historically good Purdue team. A team that won 30 games for the first time in program history, owners of a record 19 straight win streak. Does the success of this team fall solely on the shoulders of one injured player? Wasn't the early-season strength of this team the balance with which they attacked and dismantled opponents?
So then the question turns to how to properly contextualize this loss, both in reference to the whole of the season, and to the history of the program. The question turns to how to not drag along the weight of past failures into this particular, unique failure to break through the elusive -- for Matt Painter at least -- Sweet Sixteen ceiling.
There's more to say for this season, more than I have the heart to write tonight, but tonight we saw a talented team play a weaker opponent, a weaker opponent that didn't even play particularly well. And we saw that same talented team fail to capitalize on that talent differential, fail to score for nearly eight minutes in a row, and then again for nearly four minutes in a row in the same first half. A more talented team fail to contain the background players of their weaker opponent, fail to play with focus and intensity, fail to block out on rebounds, fail to close down passing lanes, fail to generate good looks on offense. Fail to do more to support the herculean effort of their start shooting guard (30 points, and hustle that left everything on the court), fail to break through and accomplish something that countless weaker programs have in the last 18 years.
What changes for this program? What allows them to finally break through? I have no good ideas tonight, but tonight's loss rests bitter in my mouth. The weirdness of this season, the inability of any one team to distinguish themselves, the make-up of this roster, the generosity of the NCAA Tournament draw...all these factors don't line up often, and they did this year. And once again, Purdue only has a Sweet Sixteen to show for it.
Historically, Purdue has a team with the look of national relevance once every 8-10 years. This was their best shot since the Baby Boilers, who in turn was Purdue's best since that 2000 team. What is there to do now? Wait, and hope. And as in the last 18 seasons, that is all that's left to do.