Now what? As Purdue's Final Four drought continues, what is Matt Painter's plan to end it?
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This loss is going to linger.
Purdue’s Sweet 16 defeat to Saint Peter’s ended what the Boilermakers — the program and fans alike — hoped would be a Final Four season. Matt Painter seemed to have had the Purdue team most likely to end the program’ s 42-year Final Four drought, with a talented and seemingly versatile roster that had at least one NBA player and possibly a couple others, yet in the end the Boilermakers couldn’t overcome their own mistakes.
The result was disappointment, which comes when reality fails to meet expectation, and that feeling becomes particularly acute when the expectation level is gigantic, as it was for the Boilermakers. A team that spent 1 week as the No. 1 team in the country, whether that was deserved or not, didn’t win a Big Ten regular-season or tournament title, and was left 2 wins short of the Final Four.
Adding to the heartbreak was the knowledge that the NCAA bracket was greased for a deep Purdue run, with top East Region seeds Baylor and Kentucky falling early, leaving only 15-seed Saint Peter’s, then 8-seed North Carolina, which the Boilermakers had beaten earlier in the season, as regional opponents.
North Carolina is heading to the Final Four while the Boilermakers, with a program-best 29 victories, deal with a sense of unfulfilled potential.
So now what?
Purdue will have a very different roster next season, one that probably will not have the type of expectation on it that seemed to become a burden for this year’s group. Star Jaden Ivey is gone, off to become a lottery pick in the NBA, where he’ll probably be a better player than he even was at Purdue. Seniors Trevion Williams, Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. have seen the ends of their Purdue careers, and in an age of the transfer portal, perhaps others could depart.
Purdue will reload around big man Zach Edey — he’ll likely remain at Purdue, although there’s a possibility he could at least test the NBA entry process — Mason Gillis, Caleb Furst and Brandon Newman, who will return, it is thought, following a season in which he fell out of the rotation despite being a talented offensive prospect. And talented freshman Trey Kaufmann-Renn, who redshirted this season, could become an instant-impact-type player next season. Four freshmen, including Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer, Camden Heide and big man Williams Berg, will join, as well.
But Purdue itself will hit the portal, looking for both point guard and scoring guard help. It doesn’t have a player on the roster like Ivey, few teams do, but Painter could use a player who can create offense for himself.
More than personnel, however, Purdue needs to get back to playing like its long-held identity, built in the days of Gene Keady and continued with Painter. These Boilermakers never embraced it; they weren’t a good defensive team, didn’t always win 50-50 balls, couldn’t value possessions as well as needed and were too often lackadaisical in their approach.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been as surprised that they lost.
Some want Purdue to hit the panic button and make sweeping changes, but they are not going to do that, nor should it. But perhaps Painter does need to make philosophical changes in his roster building. Yes, Purdue’s fashioned itself as a destination for big men, like JaJuan Johnson, AJ Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Edey and Williams, but it’s questionable whether post-oriented teams can have NCAA Tournament success. It’s a guards’ game, particularly in the postseason. And Purdue’s guards, although solid much of the season, suffered a tremendous dud vs. the Peacocks. It’s unlikely a coincidence that the Boilermakers’ closest run to the Final Four, when they were literally within seconds of a victory against Virginia in the Elite 8 in 2019, came in a Carsen Edwards- and Ryan Cline-led group.
Purdue isn’t going away.
It’ll put another team together, one another after that, which might not be as talented but could play with a more familiar Boilermaker brand? Will that be good enough to make a Final Four? Not sure. But clearly this year’s team couldn’t get it done, whether that was the burden of expectations, or turnovers, or coaching, or whatever.
Maybe next year.