Purdue was on the verge of NCAA men’s tournament infamy on Friday night when TV cameras cut to the Boilermakers’ huddle during a timeout.
Head coach Matt Painter was scribbling something on a clipboard, desperately trying to diagram a play to score five points in 1.2 seconds.
That moment of futility at the end of Purdue’s 63-58 loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson is the perfect metaphor for the Boilermakers’ torturous history in March. It seems Painter always searches in vain for the one play that can free star-crossed Purdue from 43 years of NCAA tournament anguish and heartache.
Since their most recent Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has won 10 Big Ten regular-season titles, made 31 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and earned the No. 1 seed four times. None of these teams have made it back to the Final Four. Some have been cut short in the most painful ways imaginable.
In 1994, a Purdue team led by Glenn Robinson won 29 games, clinched the No. 1 seed, and advanced to the Elite Eight. Then Robinson suffered a back injury—reportedly from a rough altercation in a hotel room with teammates—and shot a miserable 6-for-22 in a loss to Duke.
In 1996, Purdue again won the Big Ten and earned the No. 1 seed. This time, the Boilermakers avoided losing to 16th-seeded Western Carolina before falling to Georgia one round later.
In 2000, Purdue caught some breaks and earned a golden opportunity, needing only to beat eighth-seeded Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. The Bryan Cardinal and the Boilermakers suffered a late scoring drought at a bad time and lost 64–60.
In 2010, Indianapolis was the site of the Final Four and Purdue had a team capable of competing for the title. Then in late February, star Robby Hummel suffered the first of many ACL tears and the Boilermakers were never the same again.
In 2019, Carson Edwards put third-seeded Purdue on his back and the Boilermakers defeated top-seeded Virginia in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass by Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite’s buzzer-beating jump shot kept the Cavaliers’ national title hopes alive.
In 2022, a Purdue team featuring future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey and a pair of talented 7-footers needed only to beat 15th-seeded St. Peter’s to advance to the Elite Eight. Doug Edert and Peacock instead added to their legend, rallying from a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.
Some close calls and near misses turned out to be unlucky. Purdue’s latest NCAA tournament meltdown was self-inflicted.
Fairleigh Dickinson was ranked sub-300 by most advanced metrics entering the NCAA tournament. Its head coach was in charge of a Division II program at this time last year. Its roster is the smallest in all of Division I college basketball.
The Knights did not win either a regular season or conference tournament title in the lowest-seeded conference in college basketball this season. Merrimack swept both but was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament while in the final year of the transition from Division II to Division I.
And yet when Friday’s game hung in the balance, it was Fairleigh Dickinson who played big and Purdue who shrank from the moment.
Fairleigh Dickinson’s strategy on attack was to convert their lack of size into strength by spreading the floor and attacking the basket. The presence of 7-foot-4 Zach Edey could make Purdue vulnerable against a team that can force him to defend in space, but the Boilermakers did a respectable job, holding the Knights to 38.4% shooting from the field. given.
It all went wrong for Purdue when it had the ball. Fairleigh Dickinson made up for the lack of size on defense by crowding Eddy with multiple defenders in an effort to force him to beat none other than college basketball’s national player of the year. Ade scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he attempted only one shot in the final 12 minutes of the game.
The freshman backcourt of Fletcher Lauer and Braden Smith was a catalyst for Purdue’s climb to No. 1 in the country earlier this season, but their struggles late in the season also contributed to the Boilermakers’ vulnerability entering the NCAA tournament. Lawlor and Smith could not take Ade’s ball, nor could they hit the jump shot that Fairleigh Dickinson was daring them to take.
His shooting woes contributed to Purdue going 5-of-26 from behind the arc. Smith also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 turnovers.
After the loss, Painter tried to make sense of it. How could this happen to a team that defeated Duke, Gonzaga and Marquette in non-conference play and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles?
“For six years now we’ve been a top-5 seed,” Painter said. “And you try to do just that. You just try to fight to be in the best possible position. And now we’re in the best possible position and this happens. And obviously it hurts. It hurts a lot. “
There’s a knee-jerk reaction to blaming Painter for another March slump. Surely there will be plenty of flashy actors who will say that their teams always fumble and will never win the NCAA tournament.
The reality is that Purdue will not continue to win Big Ten titles and earn the No. 1 seed without Painter. It’s fair to question whether he needs to re-examine his approach to the NCAA tournament, but there’s no reason to take what he’s built and a wrecking ball to begin with.
Even this year’s team did not start the season ranked in the AP Top 25 after sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players. Purdue exceeded all expectations until Friday’s latest March debacle.
There was a time when people used to say that Bill Self could not win in March. It’s the same with Scott Drew and Jay Wright.
Maybe someday the painter will put an end to that too. But for at least one more year, he’s the coach of a program that inspires hope each year from November until the end of the Big Ten Tournament, when it matters most.