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Purdue men’s basketball keeps faltering, but Matt Painter knows why and (maybe) how to get past it

Painter knows what Purdue needs to finally break through. He just might be able to get there.

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Fairleigh Dickinson v Purdue Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It just keeps happening.

In 2021 it was 13-seed North Texas. Next year was the Sweet Sixteen loss to 15-seed St. Peter’s despite a clear-cut path to the Final Four, seemingly the bottom of the barrel.

But there’s a seed below a 15. A team bearing it has only ever won a game in either the men’s or women’s tournament once each. Well, make it had.

Purdue men’s basketball reached absolute rock bottom with a crushing loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson. It just felt improbable on paper, the National Player of the Year going winless in the Tournament?

Like it or not, the reality is that Purdue was gonna be one of 67 teams to lose one way or another. If it hadn’t happened against Fairleigh Dickinson, they would’ve run into another quick, dynamic team at some point.

Just about every coach that has beaten Purdue as a low seed has successfully leveraged that success into a bigger job. Grant McCasland just got hired at Texas Tech. Shaheen Holloway is entering year two at his alma mater, Seton Hall. Tobin Anderson is taking over for the departing Rick Pitino at Iona.

The good news? It, quite literally, cannot get worse than losing to a 16-seed. The better news? Matt Painter knows why this has been happening and should, in theory, be able to fix it.

As he told The Athletic, he sees all of these losses as having come against similar teams. The kind with quick, athletic guards that are just able to outwork Purdue time and again.

Consider Purdue’s run to the Big Ten title. The Boilermakers didn’t lose a lot but when they did or when games were close it was always because the other team was more athletic and/or had better guard play.

This happened in both losses to Indiana, when Jalen Hood-Schifino torched Painter’s defense to seal the first game and took over the second at Mackey. They barely escaped Maryland at home then lost on the road. Northwestern’s experienced backcourt proved too much.

Painter was able to deal with this against Michigan State, winning narrowly on the road and triumphantly at home. He’d built a team that was perfect for Big Ten play, they won the league by three games. But the NCAA Tournament? Not so much.

The Big Ten, where physicality in the post is king, isn’t exactly known for its guard play. But when Purdue did run into a good backcourt, they were in trouble. This was bound to happen in the NCAA Tournament.

Purdue just lacked the athleticism to keep up with teams that go far in the tournament. They were going to run into guards with greater speed, a bigger bag and more burst than they had, regardless of the usual freshman mistakes that really sealed their fate.

Rest assured, the duo of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer will get better. In the sense that they’ll make less mistakes, develop a better feel for the game and hit shots at a more consistent rate. But they’ll still be athletically limited, no amount of training is gonna significantly help that.

Painter is open about the lack of athleticism and knows it’s what he needs. He’s already got some on the way.

Camden Heide, a redshirt freshman, brings some athletic ability around the rim but doesn’t have great lateral quickness. The real prize is incoming freshman Myles Colvin, who was pretty much always going to be a Boilermaker thanks to his various connections to Purdue (his father, Roosevelt, played football for the Boilermakers).

Colvin is more athletic than anyone else on Purdue’s roster, Painter has said it himself. He can finish at the rim, handle the ball, shoot and has pretty good speed on the floor. Then there’s Kanon Catchings in 2024, who can score at all three levels as a forward with great length and athletic ability.

Purdue doesn’t typically bring in high-end, athletic talent like Colvin and Catchings, the Boilers have only landed a single 247Sports five-star in program history. But when Painter has gotten athleticism recently, he’s been able to use it pretty well.

Jaden Ivey went from a first-round pick to a definite top-5 selection in the NBA Draft as a sophomore after spending two years in West Lafayette. That’s a pretty good thing to point to in recruiting talks.

I firmly believe the 2021-22 team, which was built around Ivey’s ability, had a higher ceiling than this past year’s Big Ten championship team, especially with a playmaking big like Trevion Williams alongside him.

Without Ivey, Purdue ran the offense through the post. When in doubt, pass the ball to Zach Edey and he’ll get you those two points, which he does better than almost anyone in the history of men’s college basketball. That works wonders in the Big Ten, but the team just wasn’t dynamic enough for tournament play.

Can the arrival of Colvin, minutes for Heide and progress from the backcourt boost Purdue’s chances around Edey for next year’s tournament? Maybe, it truly cannot get worse, but the Boilermakers need to be a bit more athletic than they are even now.

Good thing for them, Painter knows that. And based on the past, he could be able to fix it.