March Madness 2023: Purdue left in search of answers after another devastating exit from NCAA Tournament

No. Fairleigh Dickinson’s 16 seed removal of No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday was the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The Knights defeated the Boilermakers as underdogs by 23 points, becoming just the second No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed. And yet, as shocking as it may be, for Boilermakers fans it’s another all-too-familiar post-season setback under coach Matt Painter.

With four regular-season Big Ten titles since 2010, Purdue was one of the best teams in the Big Ten from November to February. However, regular season success and favorable seeds in the Big Dance have not translated into a Final Four let alone a title appearance or a National title. On the contrary, they have led to shocking early exits. Purdue has made a nasty habit of falling flat on its face instead of going deep into the braces. The loss to FDU marked the Boilers’ third straight loss at the hands of a double-digit seed; previously they fell to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16 and were rebounded the year before by No. 13 seed North Texas in the first round.

To question Painter’s credentials as a tactician would be to question the writing style of Charles Dickens or the entrepreneurial spirit of Thomas Edison — seriously, good luck! – but the NCAA tournament disappointments under Painter have been piling up over the years, culminating in arguably the worst loss of his career.

How does it keep happening? Is it a Painter problem? A Purdue problem? In another life, did the Boilermakers curse the basketball gods? Painter went out of his way to summarize it briefly in his post-game press conference.

“Well, today the shape within our system in terms of recruiting is to have the balance between big players and skill [around them]’, he said. “This was not something for us that was just today. It’s frustrating. It just mounted for us and got worse at times. I think we shot an out-of-rhythm 3, maybe another one. But the game plan isn’t for people to stick with it and argue, it’s to stick with it [Zach Edey] and then not even competition.”

Friday’s result: Edey, the leader of Player of the Year, got his. He finished with 21 points, 15 boards and hit almost 70% of his shots. Non-Edey threats around him: 12 of 42 shots (28.6%) from the floor, 5 of 26 shots from 3-point range, and 16 turnovers against FDU’s pressure-heavy defense.

“Our style is hard to play against,” said FDU coach Tobin Anderson. “I’m sure Big Ten teams don’t put that much pressure on. Our pace, our speed, our style, our uptempo hurt [Purdue] a little. Our boys defended their tails and played great. We are happy to survive and move forward and move on.”

You can just as easily attribute Purdue’s unfortunate postseason failures to just that – misfortune – as bad coaching or planning. Half of NCAA Tournament losses since 2019 have come in overtime, and last year’s loss to Saint Peter’s was three points. The Boilers lost by five points on Friday. But the trend of taking a nosedive when expectations are high is impossible to ignore. Here’s how the Boilermakers have fared in recent years in the NCAA Tournament dating back to 2019 when it made the Elite Eight as a No. 3 seed, losing to eventual champion Virginia:

  • 2023: No. 1 seed in East Region, Round 1 loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 2022: No. 3 seed in East Region, Sweet 16 loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s
  • 2021: No. 4 seed in South Region, Round 1 loss to No. 13 seed North Texas in overtime
  • 2019: No. 3 seed in South Region, Elite Eight loss to No. 1 seed Virginia in overtime

Remarkable results after the season

Postseason failures feel exponentially more painful for Purdue fans as the loss of FDU continues a trend of stunning early exits. But Purdue under Painter, in particular, has been largely successful in both the regular season and the postseason. Since he took over in 2005, the Boilermakers have won four Big Ten regular season championships, advanced to six Sweet 16s, made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, and made eight consecutive Big Dance appearances, dating back to 2015.

“You have to compete and be better than your opponent,” Painter said Friday. “We’re not going to give in. I know that. Unless they get me to, we’re not going to give in.’

Purdue’s guards fall short

Because it doesn’t have the brand power to recruit like an Indiana or a Michigan State, Purdue’s path to success under Painter was to win schematically with a system that revolves around big men while relying on guards. But even when the greats are at their best, the system is only as good as the guards around them. And unfortunately that turned out to be true on Friday. FDU challenged Purdue’s guards and wings to defeat it, and was unsuccessful.

“Who really wants to step up and take that shot down? You’ve got to have three or four guys that want to,” Painter said. “I was thinking of the Sint-Pietersspel [last year], those guys gave Zach a really hard time once he got a hold of him. He had that turnover in that game. That was not the case in this game. He could score. We were just wide open and they wouldn’t let us get it in there, and why would they? [They are trying to] make those other guys [beat them].”

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