Several years ago back in 2011 Matt Painter was seemingly on top of the world at West Lafayette. The man could essentially do no wrong and would have achieved considerably more in his last two seasons if not for unfortunate knee injuries for star forward Robbie Hummel in back to back seasons. So when Missouri came knocking there was quite a bit of tension among the fan base as there was some legitimate fear that Painter would bolt down south. After some speculation and rumors that blew up online, Painter stayed at Purdue, using the Missouri push to leverage a new contract and more money for his assistant coaches. Once again Painter could do no wrong, with the fan base seeing it as a move to earn more money for himself and his staff, something seen as a positive thanks to an athletic department the fan base perceives as being cheap.
Flash forward to the 2012-13 season and a completely new, inexperienced Purdue lineup struggled with consistency and fell to a 16-18 record and their first season not making the NCAA Tournament under Painter since his first season here. Most fans were relatively accepting, taking the season as inevitable growing pains in order to get things back in order. There were, however, a small group of vocal fans calling for Painter by the end of the season and at least saying the 2013-14 season should be pivotal to determining if Painter stays or goes. Well after another sub .500 season at West Lafayette, the fire Matt Painter base continues to add members to it's party and even more people are joining the "NCAA or bust" camp when it comes to Painter's job security this season.
The interesting thing is there are reasons to be critical of Painter, but some of the areas he's criticized for have been consistent with his coaching throughout his tenure here. His motion-based offense that can be entirely hit or miss, his refusal to adjust defensively when things aren't working, seemingly always having effort problems with one or two key players and a team that has a tendency to come out flat at all the wrong times. The biggest difference is that the past two seasons we've seen these issues more consistently, leading to the fans calling Painter out for his flaws instead of just looking the other way like in years past.
And that leads us to what's interesting with Painter and where Purdue stands currently...recruiting and the teams current personnel issues. Anyone that loosely follows Purdue is more than aware of the mass transfers out of Purdue the last several seasons, with point guard Ronnie Johnson adding his name to the list this spring. There's little surprise (or concern) when guys like Sandi Marcius or John Hart transfer out to find playing time at the end of their careers, but there have been plenty of underclassmen that have came and went after a short stay in Purdue. This of course has led to criticism for Painter even though most of the players leaving the program have clashed with Painter and refused to buy into his message and the program itself. While Painter is ultimately the responsible one as he was the man recruiting this kids to campus, it is interesting to see players straight up refuse to put in the effort and then get somewhat of a pass from people looking to use it to put down the coach instead.
Of course this entire fiasco has led me to an interesting thought: is the recent turnover the end result of Matt Painter trying to improve his recruiting? After a dynamite recruiting class that would come to be known as the 'Baby Boilers,' Painter never turned the high level of success at Purdue into strong recruiting classes, commonly loosing recruiting battles with other Big Ten schools and settling for role players and guys that were relatively under the radar. It's safe to say that the last few seasons have seen a considerably improvement in recruiting, though a decent number of the better recruits have clashed with Painter (Ronnie Johnson) and had serious issues with effort (A.J. Hammons). Did the need for better recruiting lead Painter to start going after better prospects with more potential character issues?
Regardless, after back to back seasons of having a team not piece things together and buy into the system, Painter's growing frustration spilled over and it looks like the program has essentially purged itself of players that were poisonous in the locker room. Of course this creates another reoccurring problem for the Boilermakers...inexperience. Once again the team will look to a slew of freshmen in Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias to finally fix the teams shooting woes, while late signee P.J. Thompson will likely be called to run the point straight from the get go if Painter wants to put sophomore Bryson Scott back at the two, a position that will work out considerably better for the combo guard. Painter will also be calling on new guys Jacquil Taylor and Isaac Haas to provide depth in the front court thanks to the unfortunate departure of Jay Simpson and the graduation of Travis Carroll. The end result is a team that has played young the last two seasons will have to do so once again for a third season in a row.
So what does it all mean?
It means that the turmoil the last few seasons might not allow for a quick fix and could spill into next year as well. For a fan base sick of losing and sick of being patient, that won't suffice. The reality is, though, it might have to. When it comes to Painter and the hot seat...I see this season as a year in transition and one pivotal to determine Painter's future with the program. Fellow SB Nation site Hammer & Rails mentioned that he should be let go if they miss the NCAA Tournament, I don't agree with this but I do believe it's not completely off base. I believe that Painter can keep his job even if he misses the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season and I honestly believe that he will be back in 2015 when everything is said and done. If Painter is going to get let go after the season it's going to be because either the 2014-15 season is a complete disaster that is a regression from the last two seasons or there is huge turmoil within the program. That being said, especially considering the purging of personnel and the once again youth-laden team, if Painter can get his players to buy in to the program and they can improve from the last two seasons...I think he returns. Of course improvement and no NCAA Tournament appearance means Painter will be on the hot seat next season and if he misses it next season for any reason then I don't see how the program can justify keeping him...but the hot seat should be cool enough this year as long as the program shows any sort of improvement.
Another reason why I think the school will be hesitant to move on from Painter quickly is the fact that for whatever reason Purdue has seemingly struggled with bringing in more prominent coaches to West Lafayette. Everyone dreams of Cuonzo Martin or Brad Stevens...but even if both were available one has to wonder if Purdue could bring them in. Even when Purdue is a national contender the program has failed to consistently be capable of bringing in top talent, especially true with recruiting. Also, with the not-so-old contract extension in 2011 and the previous success, I believe Morgan Burke will continue to give Painter the benefit of the doubt. Let's not forget that this is a program that had a rough stretch from 2000 to 2005 under Gene Keady, making it to the NCAA Tournament only once in five seasons and never hitting 20 wins.
So when everything is said and done, Painter needs to show some improvement in 2014-15 and I think he will. With that improvement I think there's little reason to expect a coaching change next spring. Of course improvement and failing to make the big dance will lead to a make or break season next year, but I think if Painter can avoid major turmoil and/or scandal his job will be safe for at least another day.