Purdue was on the precipice of NCAA men's tournament infamy on Friday night when TV cameras cut to the Boilermakers' huddle during a timeout.
There was head coach Matt Painter scribbling on a clipboard, desperately trying to diagram a play to score five points in 1.2 seconds.
That moment of futility at the end of Purdue’s 63-58 loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson is the perfect metaphor for the Boilermakers’ tortured history in March. Painter always seems to be searching in vain for a play that can free star-crossed Purdue from 43 years of NCAA tournament anguish and heartache.
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
Since its most recent Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has claimed 10 Big Ten regular-season titles, made 31 NCAA tournament appearances and secured a No. 1 seed four times. None of those teams have made it back to the Final Four. Some have fallen short in the most agonizing ways imaginable.
In 1994, a Glenn Robinson-led Purdue team won 29 games, secured a No. 1 seed and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. Then Robinson suffered a back injury — allegedly goofing around roughhousing in a hotel room with teammates — and shot a miserable 6-for-22 in a loss to Duke.
In 1996, Purdue again won the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed. This time, the Boilermakers narrowly avoided losing to 16th-seeded Western Carolina before falling a round later to Georgia.
In 2000, Purdue caught some breaks and earned a golden opportunity, needing only to defeat eighth-seeded Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. Brian Cardinal and the Boilermakers endured an ill-timed late scoring drought and lost 64-60.
In 2010, Indianapolis was the site of the Final Four and Purdue had a team capable of competing for the title. Then in late February, star Robbie Hummel suffered the first of multiple ACL tears and the Boilermakers never were the same again.
In 2019, Carsen Edwards put third-seeded Purdue on his back and the Boilermakers had top-seeded Virginia beat in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass by Kihei Clark and a buzzer-beating jump shot from Mamadi Diakite preserved the Cavaliers’ national title hopes.
In 2022, a Purdue team featuring future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey and a pair of talented 7-footers needed only to beat 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s to advance to the Elite Eight. Doug Edert and the Peacocks instead added to their legend, rallying from a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.
Some of the close calls and near misses felt unlucky. Purdue's latest NCAA tournament meltdown was self-inflicted.
Fairleigh Dickinson was ranked sub-300 by most advanced metrics entering the NCAA tournament. Its head coach was in charge of a Division II program at this time last year. Its roster is the shortest in all of Division I college basketball.
The Knights didn't even win the regular season or conference tournament titles in college basketball's lowest-rated conference this season. Merrimack swept both but was ineligible for the NCAA tournament while in the final year of a transition from Division II to Division I.
And yet when Friday's game was hanging in the balance, it was Fairleigh Dickinson who played big and Purdue who shrunk from the moment.
Fairleigh Dickinson's strategy on offense was to turn its lack of size into a strength by spreading the floor and attacking the basket. The presence of 7-foot-4 Zach Edey can make Purdue vulnerable against a team that can force him to defend in space, but the Boilermakers did a respectable job, holding the Knights to 38.4% shooting from the field.
Where it all went wrong for Purdue was when it had the ball. Fairleigh Dickinson masked its lack of size on defense by crowding Edey with multiple defenders in an effort to force someone besides college basketball’s national player of the year frontrunner to beat them. Edey scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he attempted only one shot in the game’s final 12 minutes.
The freshman backcourt of Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were catalysts for Purdue ascending to No. 1 in the country earlier this season but their late-season struggles also contributed to the Boilermakers' vulnerability entering the NCAA tournament. Loyer and Smith couldn't get Edey the ball, nor could they hit the jump shots Fairleigh Dickinson was daring them to take.
Their shooting woes contributed to Purdue going 5-of-26 from behind the arc. Smith also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 turnovers.
In the aftermath of the loss, Painter tried to make sense of it. How could this happen to a team that beat Duke, Gonzaga and Marquette in non-conference play and swept the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles?
“Six straight years we've been a top-5 seed,” Painter said. “And that's all you try to do. You just try to fight to get in the best position possible. And now we get in the best position possible and this happens. And obviously it hurts. It hurts bad.”
The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Painter for another March meltdown. There will surely be plenty of hot-take artists saying that his teams always choke and that he’ll never win in the NCAA tournament.
The reality is that Purdue wouldn’t keep winning Big Ten titles and earning No. 1 seeds without Painter. It's fair to question if he needs to reexamine his approach to the NCAA tournament, but there's no reason to take a wrecking ball to what he has built and start over.
Even this year's team didn't start the season in the AP Top 25 after sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players. Purdue exceeded all expectations until Friday's latest March debacle.
There was a time when people said that Bill Self couldn’t win in March. Same with Scott Drew and Jay Wright.
Maybe someday Painter will put an end to that talk too. But for at least one more year, he’s the coach of a program that annually raises hopes from November until the end of the Big Ten tournament only to implode when it matters most.