Purdue’s painful NCAA tournament history reaches boiling point of failure with historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson

Purdue stood on the precipice of NCAA men’s tournament infamy on Friday night as television cameras cut to the Boilermakers’ scrum during a timeout.

There was head coach Matt Painter scribbling on a clipboard, desperately trying to sketch a game 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’ tormented history in March. Painter always seems to be looking in vain for a piece that can ease Purdue’s crossed stars of 43 years of NCAA tournament fear and heartache.

Since his last Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has won 10 Big Ten regular-season titles, competed in 31 NCAA tournaments, and secured a No. 1 spot four times. Neither of these teams made it back to the Final Four. Some have come up short in the most excruciating way imaginable.

  • In 1994, a Purdue team led by Glenn Robinson won 29 games, secured first place and advanced to the Elite Eight. Then Robinson suffered a back injury — allegedly goofing around 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 received a No. 1 seed. This time, the Boilermakers narrowly avoided losing to 16th-seeded Western Carolina before losing to Georgia a round later.

  • In 2000, Purdue caught a few breaks and earned a golden opportunity by only needing to defeat 8th-place Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. Brian Cardinal and the Boilermakers suffered an ill-timed drought, losing 64-60.

  • In 2010, Indianapolis hosted the Final Four and Purdue had a team capable of contending for the title. Then, at the end of February, star Robbie Hummel suffered the first of several cruciate ligament ruptures and the Boilermakers were never the same.

  • In 2019, Carsen Edwards beat third-seeded Purdue and the Boilermakers had beaten top-seeded Virginia in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass from Kihei Clark and a bombastic jump shot from Mamadi Diakite saved the Cavaliers’ national title hopes.

  • In 2022, a Purdue team featuring future NBA lottery winner Jaden Ivey and two talented 7-footers only had to beat 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s to advance to the Elite Eight. Doug Edert and the Peacocks instead added to their legend, rebounding from a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.

Some of the tight calls and near misses felt unfortunate. Purdue’s recent NCAA tournament collapse was self-inflicted.

Fairleigh Dickinson was ranked under 300 on the most advanced metrics to compete in the NCAA tournament. His head coach was in charge of a Division II program at this time last year. His list is the shortest in all of Division I college basketball.

The Knights haven’t even won the regular season or conference tournament titles in college basketball’s lowest-rated conference this season. Merrimack swept both but did not qualify for the NCAA tournament in the last year of a Division II to Division I transition.

And yet, with Friday’s game on the line, it was Fairleigh Dickinson playing big and Purdue shrinking from the moment.

March 17, 2023;  Columbus, OH, USA;  Fairleigh Dickinson Knights guard Heru Bligen (3) kicks the ball over Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey (15) in the first half at Nationwide Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Guard Heru Bligen and Fairleigh Dickinson were undeterred by center Zach Edey (left) on Friday night. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Fairleigh Dickinson’s attacking strategy was to turn his small size into a strength by spreading the ground and attacking the basket. The presence of 7-foot-4 Zach Edey can leave Purdue vulnerable against a team that can force him to defend in space, but the Boilermakers have done a respectable job keeping the Knights 38.4% controlled from the field shoot.

It all went wrong for Purdue when it had the ball. Fairleigh Dickinson masked his lack of size on defense by crowding Edey with multiple defenders to force anyone other than the all-time college basketball international of the year leader to hit them. Edey scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he only attempted a shot in the final 12 minutes of the game.

Freshman backcourt Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were catalysts for Purdue, who rose to No. 1 in the country earlier this season, but their late-season struggles also added to the vulnerability of the Boilermakers entering the NCAA tournament. Loyer and Smith could not get the ball to Edey, nor could they hit the jump shots Fairleigh Dickinson challenged them to.

Her shooting problems helped Purdue go 5 of 26 behind the arc. Smith has also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 turnovers.

After the loss, Painter tried to make sense of it. How did this happen to a team that defeated Duke, Gonzaga and Marquette in a non-conference game to win the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles?

“We’ve been in the top five for six straight years,” Painter said. “And that’s all you’re trying to do. You’re just trying to fight to get in the best possible position. And now we’re getting into the best possible position and that’s happening. And obviously it hurts. It hurts like hell.”

The knee-jerk reaction blames Painter for another meltdown in March. There will surely be plenty of hot artists saying his teams are always suffocating and that he will never win the NCAA tournament.

The reality is that without Painter, Purdue wouldn’t keep winning Big Ten titles and earning the No. 1 seed. It’s fair to ask if he needs to reconsider his approach to the NCAA tournament, but there’s no reason to take a wrecking ball to what he’s built and start over.

Even this year’s team didn’t start the season in the AP Top 25 after sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players. Purdue exceeded all expectations until the last March debacle on Friday.

There was a time when people said Bill Self couldn’t win in March. The same goes for Scott Drew and Jay Wright.

Maybe one day Painter will put an end to that talk too. But for at least another year, he’s the coach of a program that annually fuels hopes from November through the end of the Big Ten tournament, only to implode when it matters most.


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