WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As the Purdue Boilermakers gathered around the center circle Tuesday for the opening tip against Milwaukee, it had been 227 days since that awful thud in Philadelphia. New season, and a chance for a coach to push the anguish deeper into the past.
"Unless you win it all, you do it every year," Matt Painter had said the other day before practice. "So you’re used to it."
But never quite like this. The downside of a lovable underdog making NCAA tournament history is that some poor favorite has to pay the tab for the party. Painter and Purdue will forever be the last victims in Saint Peter’s thrilling march through March. As the Boilermakers officially turned the page Tuesday, we should remember what they’re trying to forget . . .
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It ended 67-64 that night, as Saint Peter’s became the first No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Elite Eight. Not until this fall could Painter bring himself to fully study the tape. He could see the 15 turnovers and the collapse of the offense, when Purdue missed 11 of 12 from the 3-point arc in the second half. He could see how tight and tense the night was — 10 ties and 15 lead changes — and how the whole year of work got away at the end.
"It takes me a while to watch it," Painter said. "It’s hard to watch."
In the nearly eight months since, he has tried to process the moment, learn from it, put it in perspective. He had company, at least. Kentucky was the first big name to trip over Saint Peter’s, so John Calipari had his own pondering to do. But Calipari has won a national championship and gone to a gaggle of Final Fours. Painter has been trying desperately to get there for a long time, and 2022 had looked like a great chance.
"I dwelled on it. You just have time to dwell on it," he said. "I also think part of that misery is good for you. To be able to sit in that misery should jar some of those juices from a competitive standpoint and get you going for the next year. So you’ve got to fight like hell to get back to where you were, and then you’ve got to play better.
"Kind of the therapeutic piece of it is just going through the off-season and getting yourself ready for the next season. People just think, is this going to motivate you? You’re like, everything motivates you. Any time you lose it motivates you. Any time you fall short of your goals it motivates you."
He has come to some conclusions about that night as time goes by.
"I thought they were a little tougher than us, a little stingier than we were. They dictated some things from a defensive standpoint and forced us into turnovers. The thing that I made a huge mistake on that I didn’t see was I thought we were in a good place in terms of the way we played against Texas (a 10-point second round win) and the way we practiced that week leading up to our St. Peter’s game. That we were in a good head space. Then we start the game and we’re not.
"It’s not anything schematic that I’d go back and change. It’s the pulse of your team and being ready to play."
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Purdue finished 29-8 and in the Sweet 16. Many programs dream of such feats, but last season ended with a strong sense of opportunity squandered for the Boilermakers.
"Our production’s always been a little bit better than our talent, and last year it wasn’t," Painter said. "Even though we won 29 games and we had some big moments, we still should have won our league, we still should have advanced further in the tournament, in my opinion. So that’s hard. As a coach that’s your responsibility. That’s on you. We just had a handful of games where we beat ourselves. A trademark of our program is, we haven’t beat ourselves in the past."
There was nothing to do but prepare for his 18th season at Purdue. "The people that don’t understand it, they always think a change is what you need to do," he said. "We just need to be better at what we do. We’ve proven that we have a good system, that we have a good program."
Purdue’s legacy is one of consistent success, with a scoop of tournament frustration on the top. The Boilers own more Big Ten titles than anyone with 24, but eight current conference members have gone to the Final Four since Purdue was last there, 42 long years ago. The Boilermakers have been seeded no lower than No 4 in the past five NCAA tournaments and only Kansas and Gonzaga can also say that. Painter is now fifth on the all-time list of victories for coaches while they were in the Big Ten, but three of the four ahead of him — Bob Knight, Tom Izzo and Lou Henson — all made it to the Final Four. The one who did not is Gene Keady, another Purdue man. Painter was within seconds in 2019 against Virginia in the Elite Eight.
Virginia has crossed Painter’s mind for another reason. The Cavaliers made their own sorrowful piece of NCAA tournament history in 2018 when they became the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16. They faced their music head-on and regrouped the next year to win the national championship.
Purdue’s case is not quite the same; the Boilermakers didn’t lose in the first round and not by 20 points. And they don’t return the bulk of their lineup as Virginia did. But still, their roles in March — fall guys for fairy tales — have parallels.
"Part of their progress as a program was that they had to sit in it," Painter said. "It’s painful, but it also can be something that can be constructive. It can make you better as a player and a person and a coach and a team."
That’s one of the goals as the season began at Purdue Tuesday with an 84-53 breeze past Milwaukee. Mackey Arena was nearly full but the crowd noise was not quite turned on to the max. There are nights for a visiting team that this place is like playing in a hanger of full-powered 747s. Wait until Indiana shows up.
Zach Edey is the top returnee at 7-4. This is the ninth consecutive year the Purdue roster has included someone at least 7-2, and if anyone is worried about the streak ending soon with Edey now a junior, relax. Freshman Will Berg is 7-2. It’s the redwood pipeline. Painter started a freshman backcourt and that went well, with 17 points from Fletcher Loyer and seven steals from Braden Smith. "It almost feels like a video game out there. It doesn’t really feel like real life," Loyer said of his first game night as a collegian. It will when the Big Ten defenses come at him. Edey had 17 rebounds and six blocks. The 2022-23 journey was underway. March was now formally the past.
The story still seems magical, Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight. Remember how the college basketball world enjoyed it so? But not in West Lafayette.