Hickey: Purdue will own its historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson forever
Matt Painter will wear this forever.
That’s what happens when you make history. Especially when it’s the worst kind of history. And even more so when it’s a case of history repeating itself.
Never before in NCAA Tournament history has a team been bounced by a 15-seed and a 16-seed in consecutive years.
Unprecedented and downright unthinkable. That’s where Purdue is at right now. Failing to reach the Final Four for the 43rd straight season is somehow the least of the Boilermakers’ problems.
A year after 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s did the feat, it was another unheralded team from New Jersey that broke Boilermaker hearts: No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.
The Knights aren’t even supposed to be here. Really. FDU did not win the Northeast Conference regular-season or tournament titles.
The actual NEC champion is Merrimack.
But because the Warriors are transitioning up from Division II — there are different academic standards at each level necessitating that transition — Merrimack is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.
Fairleigh Dickinson made this Tournament by losing its conference championship game to Merrimack.
FDU’s 70-50 win over St. Francis (Pa.) in the semifinal was its bizarre entry into the NCAA Tournament. So it makes perfect sense that the Knights needed to beat Texas Southern in Dayton just to earn a shot at the Boilermakers.
Purdue’s unparalleled failure
Without question, this is the most embarrassing loss in NCAA Tournament history.
The only prior win by a 16-seed is barely in the same stratosphere.
Per Ken Pomeroy, in 2018 UMBC was a semi-respectable 184th in the country before springing its then-unprecedented upset of No. 1 Virginia. By his same metrics, Fairleigh Dickinson is a distant 275th out of 363 teams in Division I.
On Nov. 30, the same day Purdue beat Florida State to improve to 7-0, FDU lost to Hartford.
That might not seem like a big deal. Hartford just made the NCAA Tournament a couple years back. But it’s an enormous deal.
Hartford is the worst job in Division I.
The program is in the process of dropping to Division III. The coach literally resigned the night before the season started because the school was too cheap to send the training staff on the road for Hartford’s preseason scrimmage.
The Hawks had 2 wins over Division I opponents this season — one of them being a 74-66 win over Fairleigh Dickinson. Which means Hartford also scored 16 more points against FDU than Purdue — despite ranking 361st nationally in offensive efficiency.
That’s who Purdue just lost to.
So yeah, Painter is definitely wearing this forever.
But he won’t be the only one.
Zach Edey’s unfortunate end
Ironically, this is the second straight year that college basketball’s national player will exit the Tournament in the first round.
Last year, it was Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The 2nd-seeded Wildcats were bounced by the same Saint Peter’s team that would eliminate Purdue 2 rounds later.
But it’s a different big man that Zach Edey will forever be linked to.
Sampson is a fellow 7-foot-4 tower and a 3-time national player of the year. But he’s perhaps most famous for taking part in the most significant upset in college basketball regular-season history.
In 1982, No. 1 Virginia just happened to be in the neighborhood and took on NAIA Chaminade in Honolulu. The Silverswords, fresh off a loss to Wayland Baptist, earned a stunning 77-72 win over the Cavaliers despite not having a player within 10 inches of Sampson’s height.
It’s an eerily similar set of circumstances for Edey and Purdue against FDU — at least in terms of how this game was lost.
UVA didn’t lose to Chaminade on account of Sampson, who was hardly himself but finished with 12 points and 17 rebounds. And Purdue didn’t lose on account of Edey, who was hardly himself but finished with 21 points and 15 boards.
Virginia lost to Chaminade because it committed 25 turnovers. And Purdue lost to FDU because committed 16 turnovers while shooting 19.2% from 3-point range.
Purdue’s backcourt stunk, period.
Purdue’s backcourt exposed for a final time
This was always how it was going to end for the Boilermakers.
None of us saw it coming to this team in particular outside of FDU coach Tobin Anderson.
"The more I watch Purdue, the more I think we can beat them."
The FDU coach called their upset win yesterday 😱 pic.twitter.com/Ist2i94wMT
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 18, 2023
But Anderson saw what anyone else who has watched Purdue in recent weeks has seen. Purdue’s guards are either inexperienced or bad. This was painfully obvious when the Boilers nearly coughed up a commanding 17-point lead in the final 6 minutes of the Big Ten championship game.
Purdue was living on borrowed time.
And as it turned out, the Knights were a good enough team to steal the final sands of the hourglass.
Freshman point guard Braden Smith finished his first NCAA Tournament game with as many turnovers as points — 7 apiece. He was 2-for-10 from the field. Not exactly a stellar follow-up to his 0 of 8 showing against Penn State.
Smith is skilled — he also had 6 assists and 2 steals — but he’s green.
He’s also slightly built. His listed height of 6-feet is surely closer to 5-10. Smith has the arms of a kid who went to a regular high school instead of some sports factory. Or Popeye before eating spinach.
With some bulk and savvy he’ll be a star in a couple years. But it’s a testament to Painter’s ability as a coach that Purdue won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles with that level of inexperience running the offense.
And when Smith struggled, absolutely no one was game enough to pick up the slack.
The Boilermakers were 5-for-26 from 3-point range. They probably should have launched 35 3s, but several players passed on wide-open looks in the second half.
They were scared. A 1-seed, scared of a team that lost to Hartford. And in the process of trying not to be the scapegoat, Purdue’s guards applied the horns to their own heads.
David Jenkins and Ethan Morton played a combined 40 minutes off the bench. Neither scored. Fletcher Loyer hit 3 of Purdue’s 5 treys, but was often a liability on the other end of the floor.
That’s how you make the wrong kind of history.
Could Painter have coached a better game? Clearly.
Could Edey have elevated his performance? Certainly.
But this Purdue team was always going to be shackled by a lacking backcourt. There’s a reason Painter so desperately wanted to add Nijel Pack or Tyrese Hunter in the transfer portal last offseason.
He knew he needed them.
Pack’s team (Miami) is still playing. Hunter’s team (Texas) is also moving on. And they might not be done for a while.
Painter’s team is not moving on. The writing has been on the wall as to how this Purdue season would end since last year. It was just a question of when.
And even the skeptics among us didn’t anticipate it would be quite so soon.
The painful irony was the Boilermakers overachieved so much in the regular season that it put them in the elevated position of a 1-seed. That’s what great coaching and the national player of the year will do for you.
But those same circumstances set the stage for a loss that will forever live in infamy. And Purdue’s pain may never go away.