Reaching No. 1 again shows Matt Painter has built a program. Now, Purdue needs NCAA Tournament success to follow
Twice in 2 seasons, Purdue has been ranked the No. 1 team in the country.
But even that achievement — AP voters put the Boilermakers No. 1 on Dec. 6, 2021 and again Monday, a year and 6 days later — isn’t telling of the whole story. It’s not as if Purdue was ranked No. 1 last season, went to a Final Four, then was 3rd in the ensuing preseason, before climbing up 2 spots.
Instead, Purdue had an earlier-than-expected exit in the Sweet 16 of the spring’s NCAA Tournament, saw 5 players depart, including NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey and All-Big Ten player Trevion Williams, and were unranked to start this season. And yet here Purdue is, back again — already — with a very different team than the one last year.
Ivey and Williams are gone, as are Sasha Stefanovic, Eric Hunter Jr. and Isaiah Thompson: 3 starters, the 6th man (who played starter minutes) and the backup point guard. Purdue’s roster was left with an experienced frontcourt, led by national player-of-the-year candidate Zach Edey, but an inexperienced backcourt, which features freshman starters Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. And then a bunch of other players who needed to slide into new roles this season.
Purdue is the 9th team in poll history, according to the NCAA, to go from unranked in the preseason to No. 1 and it’s the fastest to do so, having reached the top spot before Christmas. None of the other 8 reached the top before the turn of the new calendar year.
What’s it say about the job that Matt Painter has done?
It says that Painter, now in his 18th season at his alma mater, has built a program, rather than a series of individual teams year in and year out. And in doing so, it seems the ultimate desired result will follow. It takes hard work, talent, commitment, want-to — and probably luck, too — to reach a Final Four, a place the Boilermakers have not been since 1980. Getting there is not a given, but when a program has a proven formula for consistent regular-season success, then it feels more and more likely that the postseason will follow. And the Boilermakers have been close, advancing to the Sweet 16 in 4 of the past 5 NCAA Tournaments, with an Elite Eight trip in 2019 that brought them within seconds of a Final Four and chance at a national championship.
Yes, there have been disappointments. For as talented as last season’s team was, it was incomplete, and the Sweet 16 loss to Cinderella Saint Peter’s was a sour end to what felt like a promising tournament draw. But Painter recruits to his system, finding strong interior presences, like JaJuan Johnson and AJ Hammons and Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas and Williams and others of years past, and Edey now, and surrounding him with shooters and grinders and others who will accept roles big and small.
He has that right now. Of course, challenges will follow for these Boilermakers, who are undefeated at 10-0 to start the season, the last win being the type of grind-it-out victory (at Nebraska) that’s common on the road in the Big Ten. Purdue will have to adjust to being the hunted, a spot it didn’t adapt well to last season when it’s ascent to the No. 1 ranking was followed 48 hours later by a last-second loss at Rutgers.
Hard to say if it will, but the mistakes of last season are still fresh with those who remain now. It left them hungry, and the disrespect of leaving them out of the preseason Top-25 and picking them in the middle of the Big Ten has only added fuel. This team plays as cohesive as any we’ve seen around Purdue lately, maybe going back to the Baby Boilers of Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and Johnson more than a decade ago, a team that might have ended the Final Four drought had Hummel only stayed injury-free.
Perhaps big things are ahead only months from now. But if not, Painter has built a sustainable product, and doesn’t that lead us to believe that the big results will follow, whether this season or soon?