For Purdue, the weight of 1980 continues to be the Boilers' albatross
PHILADELPHIA — Some will blame Matt Painter for Purdue’s latest failure to reach the Final Four, which is the 42nd-straight such episode for the Boilermakers after a stunning 67-64 loss to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16.
But Painter banged a figurative version of the World’s Largest Drum all week, warning his team of the perils of playing sloppily against Saint Peter’s.
“If we don’t turn the ball over, we can beat anybody in the country,” Painter said. “If we turn the ball over, we can get beat by a lot of people.”
That lesson went through one ear and out the other for the Boilers, who coughed it up 15 times against the swarming Peacocks.
That means many will place the blame on freshman point guard Jaden Ivey, who was certainly subpar Friday night.
Ivey’s probably final game in a Purdue uniform was one to forget — 9 points on 4 of 12 shooting with 6 turnovers. The Boilermakers were minus-7 when Ivey was on the floor.
A stunning figure.
But if you think Purdue would have made it this far without Ivey, you probably believe Harry’s is actually a Chocolate Shop.
“He just had to slow down a little bit,” Painter said. “He had a fabulous year for us. He was an All-American. But you’re going to get a lot of attention. Give credit to Saint Peter’s. They did a great job.”
As for me, I choose to blame the Purdue pep band for creating band karma.
At the under-8 minute media timeout in the second half, Purdue’s band broke into a rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer.”
New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi, that is. Against a team from New Jersey. And not just any Bon Jovi song.
Purdue’s band chose to play Bon Jovi’s definitive underdog anthem. Against the definitive underdog in NCAA Tournament history. When there were plenty of choices from Lafayette native Axl Rose available if there was a need to fulfill the craving for ’80s arena anthems.
From “Livin’ On a Prayer” onward, Saint Peter’s outscored Purdue 23-15.
But regardless of who or what is actually to blame for Purdue’s latest NCAA Tournament stumble, only one thing matters in West Lafayette.
How does Painter stop this from continuing to happen?
The 42-year gorilla
No program has won more Big Ten basketball championships than Purdue with 24. But no one would name Purdue the best program in the Big Ten.
Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Minnesota have made it to the Final Four more recently than the Boilermakers. (The NCAA rescinded Minnesota’s appearance, but we all saw it happen. And Maryland doesn’t count. That was an ACC team in 2002.)
This is the great psychic pall lingering over Purdue’s program.
Under Painter and Gene Keady — and that’s it — the Boilermakers have made 11 Sweet 16s and 3 Elite 8s since 1980.
But they cannot break through the wall.
“It eats at you, man,” Painter said. “Like, you work hard to do things and to work and represent your school and to put yourself in a position to do well. It’s so hard to get in position to do well, and that’s kind of been — like these guys won 29 games, and then you feel awful.”
Painter defended the overall quality of Purdue basketball, but isn’t shying away from the fact the Boilers haven’t finished the job in March.
“Anybody can have a good team. We have a good program,” Painter said. “Our guys graduate, we’re successful, we have the most Big Ten championships of any school in the Big Ten. We just haven’t gotten over that hurdle.”
Painter’s primary goal is to get Purdue over that hump, even as it grows closer to a mountain in size.
“I think about it all the time,” Painter said of the drought. “But it’s not going to stop me from driving to get here and get back in this position again and try to get over that hurdle. That’s what our players deserve and our fans deserve.”
When will Purdue’s next chance arrive?
There’s no spinning how devastating this loss is for Purdue.
The Boilermakers were the top seed remaining in the East Region. No 15-seed had ever won a Sweet 16 game.
And a potential Elite 8 matchup against UCLA seemed like a fit of destiny. The school John Wooden played for finally getting back to the Final Four at the expense of the team Wooden coached.
Instead, the narrative refuses to change for Purdue.
Every Boiler fan is likely feeling the same gut-punch as senior Trevion Williams, who knows he will never be back. Williams was seemingly the lone Boiler who didn’t wilt in the second half, scoring 14 of the team’s 31 points.
He felt let down by his teammates, and given what happened it’s hard to argue that frustration isn’t warranted.
“Honestly, I’m still in shock,” Williams said. “I know we talked about respecting that team, and we talked about treating them like the best team in the Tournament. I don’t think everybody bought into that. They just played harder than us.”
Williams is gone. Ivey, a surefire first-round NBA pick, is certain to follow. It’s possible Zach Edey will also go pro, as 7-foot-4 guys with his footwork don’t grow on trees.
Painter talked up the 2022-23 Boilermakers at the end of his press conference. Given the setting, it felt like painting a smiley face on a casket.
“I’m excited. I mean, I feel bad for these guys here, but I like the guys that return on our team, I like the guys sitting out — we’ve got guys that are sitting out that can play and we’ve got guys that are coming,” Painter said. “… We’ve been able to recruit, we’ve been able to evaluate, we’ve been able to develop, and we’ve been able to have good teams.”
Purdue’s had plenty of good teams, and a handful of great teams.
But for 42 straight years, the Boilermakers haven’t had a Final Four team. And at the moment, the light at the end of the tunnel feels, fittingly, like an oncoming train.