Purdue is the choke artist program of the decade following another March Madness implosion
Matt Painter is as honest a shooter as he is in college basketball, so he should take those words in the same spirit that he would offer them to anyone else.
Beginning Friday night, Purdue is the choke artist program of the decade. There isn’t even a close second. And something in the DNA of what Painter built desperately needs to change.
Those calling for Painter to be fired after Purdue’s recent Chernobyl-level meltdown and become only the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in NCAA tournament history are missing the mark. Painter is a great basketball coach, and Purdue is a consistently good program, having advanced to the Sweet 16 or beyond in six of the last 14 years.
You don’t burn this down and start over. Not at Purdue. Maybe nowhere.
But the trend this program has built over three consecutive disasters in March cannot endure. It’s not acceptable.
North Texas. Saint Peter. And now Fairleigh Dickinson.
Once is a stroke of luck. Twice is a problem. Three times isn’t just embarrassing, it’s damning.
Purdue’s 63-58 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson was like steering a cruise ship straight into an iceberg in perfect weather. It was like a surgeon dropping the scalpel and cutting off an artery. It was like a pro golfer sending a 1 foot putt into a sand trap.
When things got even a little tense, Purdue completely rolled up and turned what had been routine all season into disaster.
How do you win the Big Ten regular season by a wide margin, roll through the conference tournament, and then lose to a team ranked 275th on the kenpom.com efficiency rating? Incidentally, a team that only got into the NCAA tournament because Merrimack, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in the NEC championship game, didn’t qualify for the Big Dance.
You’re losing this game because you’re afraid of it. Because you don’t have the mentality and tenacity to win it.
When the game was in limbo, Fairleigh Dickinson never faltered. Purdue ran, hid, hoping for a collapse from his opponent that wasn’t coming.
To be honest, it was a bit sad to watch. But it was also what Purdue deserved, the way it played on Friday. The Boilermakers were shy. They were unintelligent. They were everything their critics accused them of following their horrific NCAA tournament eliminations over the past two years.
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Heck, they couldn’t even get a field goal attempt for 7-foot-4 star Zach Edey in the last eight minutes. How come?
It happens because Purdue does this in March. Perhaps the narrative would be different if Virginia hadn’t pulled off one of the most wonderful end-of-game plays you’ll ever see in the 2019 Elite Eight to send the game into overtime. If Kihei Clark doesn’t make a perfect pass from the half court after a missed free throw to Mamadi Diakite to keep Virginia’s season alive, Purdue is going to that Final Four and maybe win a national championship.
But that’s not how it happened. So where do you go after this kind of heartbreak? Is it a stepping stone or an anchor?
Well, the next time Purdue got a chance to play in an NCAA tournament, things looked slow and sluggish as No. 4 in 2021 against North Texas in a 78-69 loss in overtime. Hey, it happens to everyone at some point march.
But last season, Purdue took care of business in the first two rounds and earned a trip to the Sweet 16, where luck put the Boilermakers in the same league as Saint Peter’s, who rose as a wondrous No. 15. That should have been a layup to the elite eight for Painter. Instead, it was a nightmare 67-64 loss that saw Saint Peter’s shoot 39 percent from the field and still win.
Now you have a third consecutive debacle exit and it will sting for a long, long time.
Fairleigh Dickinson played harder, smarter and was the more fearless team under pressure. Purdue, for all his regular-season achievements, will be remembered as one of the greatest goats in March Madness history.
This is the world Painter will live in for the next eight months, and the scar tissue is very real. Maybe he needs to recruit some more dynamic athletes. Maybe his system needs to be a little more flexible. Maybe he needs to change some things in the way he prepares for tournament games.
But whatever it is, Purdue is a program that hums from November through to the conference tournament and then completely implodes when everyone else is doing their best. That doesn’t mean Painter should lose his job, but he’d better find an answer to those March embarrassments.
Painter is a coach who values truth. For Purdue, that starts with a long look in the mirror.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After another March disaster, Purdue is the choke artist program of the decade