Purdue has seen it all in the past two seasons. Regular season accolades, Big Ten banners to hang and postseason heartbreak, but the Boilermakers are finally poised to erase eras of heartbreak with a national title game appearance Monday night.

A win over UConn, though a tall task against a current NCAA Tournament juggernaut, would be the storybook ending; a fitting conclusion to a redemption tour that ultimately started with last year’s March Madness loss to Fairleigh Dickinson.

In reality, a national title is always desired, but the redemption for Matt Painter and his program has already been achieved. After serving as the punching bag of the college basketball community this offseason, the Boilermakers have solidified they are no worse than the 2nd-best team in the nation no matter how Monday plays out. (For what it’s worth, Purdue is a +6.5 underdog per ESPN Bet, and that’s a spread of historical significance in a battle of 1-seeds.)

To the uninformed, Purdue’s success this season may have felt like a foregone conclusion. That’s to be expected (somewhat) when a team returns the reigning National Player of the Year and a young core around him.

The truth, however, is a bit more complex and involves a crucial offseason of adjustments for Painter’s program. The end result speaks volumes, but how this Purdue team was constructed deserves a closer look.

Re-examining the transfer portal

The transfer portal has greatly changed the landscape of college basketball, but not every team was quick to embrace the full extent of its benefits. Purdue falls into that latter category prior to the 2023-24 season.

In the four seasons from 2019-23, Purdue received just 30 starts from players who transferred into the program in 131 total games played. Those starts all came during the 2019-20 season and were split between Jahaad Proctor (18) and Evan Boudreaux (12) who came to West Lafayette from Holy Cross and Dartmouth, respectively.

Both played a role at Purdue, but neither was a difference-maker for a team that was liable to miss the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled due to COVID.

This past offseason, Painter shook things up, but it wasn’t for the marquee names like former Michigan big man Hunter Dickinson, Oral Roberts guard Max Abmas or former UNC point guard Caleb Love. Painter added just one portal piece in Lance Jones, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard from Southern Illinois who received just a 3-star transfer rating from 247 Sports.

That move was likely overlooked by some fans (and some opposing fans), but the impact has been great. He has started all 38 games and is the team’s 3rd-leading scorer at 11.9 points per game. Jones’ impact was especially felt in the Final Four as he nailed 4 3-pointers to lead all players while finishing 4-for-9 from deep with 14 points, but he already showed his worth prior to the semifinals.

The presence of Jones allowed Purdue to create some stability in the rotation. Along with Jones, the Boilermakers have maintained the same starting 5 of Zach Edey, Braden Smith, Fletcher Loyer and Trey Kaufman-Renn all season long.

Last season, Purdue lacked that consistency with just 2 players (Loyer and Smith) starting all 35 games and 7 Boilermakers starting at least 6 games. (The 3-point shooting of Jones is also significant, but we’ll discuss that deeper in a bit.)

What’s even more interesting is that adding Jones does not signify a departure from what Painter has built Purdue on. High school recruiting and long-term development will still be the calling card for the Boilermakers, but adding Jones shows Painter is more open to every possibility.

If there is a fit in the portal that can elevate the Boilermakers, Painter will not hesitate to make the addition.

Improving 3-point shooting

Plenty of opposing fans have expressed frustration at the number of free-throw attempts Zach Edey has racked up this year. It’s true, Edey shoots a lot of free throws and increased that number by about 4 per game (from 7.1 a year ago to 11.2 this season).

However, most people have glossed over the reason leading to that increase, and it’s not so much directly related to Edey: Purdue’s 3-point shooting is drastically improved.

Last season, the Boilermakers shot just 32% from 3-point range, a mark that ranked 291st in the country. This season, Purdue is 2nd in 3-point shooting (40.6%), forcing teams to choose between doubling Edey or leaving an efficient group of shooters open on the perimeter.

How does a team improve 3-point shooting that much, especially with some of the same players (Smith, Loyer and Gillis, especially) from last year? Some if it is experience with Loyer and Smith starting as true freshmen a season ago, but some of it is simply giving 3-point attempts to the players who are simply better suited to… well, shoot 3-pointers.

During the 2022-23 season, Purdue had 6 players averaging more than 2 attempts from deep every game, but not all of those players were shooting them efficiently. Loyer finished the year shooting 32.6% on a team-high 5.2 attempts per game, and 4 of those players to average 2+ attempts shot 35% or worse from deep. (2 of those players shot below 32% from 3-point range, including Brandon Newman who shot 31% on 3.2 attempts per game.)

When you look at Purdue’s makeup through that lens, it’s easier to see why the team was susceptible to an early exit against FDU. It also explains why the Boilermakers have been a tougher out this March.

Instead of 6 players averaging 2+ attempts from 3-point range, Purdue has concentrated the 3-point attempts in a group of 4 players who each average 3.2+ attempts from deep per game. That group consists of Jones, Loyer, Smith and Gillis.

And remember: Efficiency is the big key here. Every player from that group shoots at least 35% from deep, and 3 of those players shoot at least 43% from range. (If you expand the group to include Myles Colvin and Camden Heide, players to average at least 1 attempt per game, 5 of Purdue’s top 6 shooters shoot at least 43% from beyond the arc.)

That’s the kind of formula that allows Purdue to maximize Edey’s play in the post, and it has produced better spacing offensively and more free throws for their star big man. Whether or not it will be enough to tangle with UConn will be determined tomorrow night, but the formula itself has been a resounding success.

No longer is Purdue an easy punching bag after erasing the embarrassment of 2023.