It took 14 years as Purdue head coach to get it done, but Matt Painter finally got over the hump.
Thanks an outburst from Ryan Cline, who scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, and 29 points from Carsen Edwards, No. 3-seed Purdue survived a furious comeback by No. 2-seed Tennessee, knocking off the Vols, 99-94, and getting to the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in Painter’s tenure in West Lafayette.
In what was the most thrilling game of the tournament to date, Purdue caught fire in the first half, taking a 40-28 lead into the break and leading by as many as 17 points with 15:36 left in the game. But Tennessee, who had blown massive leads in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, wasn’t going anywhere. Admiral Schofield had 18 of his 21 points in the second half and Lamonte Turner had 13 of his 15, leading a rally that saw the Vols go up by as many as three points in the final minutes.
After trading haymakers for what felt like the last eight minutes of the game, the Vols finally took an 82-80 lead on a Grant Williams put-back dunk with 8.8 seconds left, but on the ensuing possession, Edwards was fouled shooting a three. He made two of the three, forcing the extra period, where Purdue used a 9-2 run to open the extra frame and put the game away.
And with that, the Boilermakers are one win away from getting to the program’s first Final Four since 1980.
On its own, that’s big for Painter, whose lack of high-level March success has made some people overlook just how good of a ball coach he is.
Because the truth is that there aren’t many coaches in the country who have had a better run than Painter has over the course of the last four seasons, and there may not even be a single coach in college hoops that did a better job this season than Painter has with this group.
This is not a Sweet 16 basketball team on paper.
Grady Eifert is a 6-foot-5 former walk-on that starts at the four. Nojel Eastern is their starting “point guard”, a 6-foot-6 defensive menace that has shot just four threes this season. The best thing about Matt Haarms, their 7-foot-3 center, is his hair. Their second-leading scorer, Ryan Cline, is a dad-bod all-star who shooting stroke has been described by Painter as someone flicking a fly rod.
None of them started last season.
That didn’t matter for the Boilermakers, as they won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this season.
And they did that despite the fact that Carsen Edwards, who used more than 34 percent of Purdue’s possessions this season, shot 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three during league play. Even with a player that carried a larger volume offensively than all but nine players in Division I this season, the Boilermakers still finished the regular season as the fifth most efficient offense in America.
It just doesn’t make sense.
Which is where Painter enters the conversation.
The first thing that you have to discuss when talking about this Purdue team is the offense that they run. It’s an x’s-and-o’s nerd’s dream. The way they use screens. They way they alleviate their ball-handling concerns with precision execution. The counters to their counters.
But the big thing here is their dribble-handoff action. It’s such a smart thing for this group to do because of the strengths of their two most dangerous weapons offensively — Edwards and Cline. Chasing Edwards around any kind of screen is a nightmare, let alone a dribble-handoff, where he can get a full head of steam before coming around a pick. Cline is almost more dangerous in these actions, and that’s because of that fly-rod shooting stroke. He has a natural fade on his shot, and a release on the side of his body makes it nearly impossible to get a clean contest.
What they run is perfectly-suited to their roster.
The acceptance of their roles?
The fact that this program has a culture that produces individual improvement each and every year?
Let’s talk about that last point. In each of the last three seasons, we’ve expected the Boilermakers to take a step back because of what they lost. In 2016-17, it was the departure of A.J. Hammons that was supposed to be the back-breaker, but Caleb Swanigan turned himself into a National Player of the Year candidate as a sophomore and the Boilermakers won the outright Big Ten title by two full games.
Last season, after Swanigan graduated, we found ourselves asking how in the hell a Purdue team that lost Swanigan would be able to remain relevant, and the answer was simple: Everyone got better, particularly Edwards, who morphed into one of the most dangerous scorers in the league. But he wasn’t alone: Dakota Mathias, Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas all turned themselves into guys that deservedly got looks from the NBA. They finished a game out of first place in the Big Ten and fifth overall in KenPom’s rankings.
This year, Purdue lost those three seniors as well as P.J. Thompson, but, again, it didn’t matter.
Cline became an all-league player. Eastern has developed into one of the best defenders in college basketball. Grady Eifert holds his own defensively and shooting 44 percent from three. Haarms is effective. Even Purdue’s four freshmen — Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter and Sasha Stefanovic — have thrived in the roles they’ve been asked to play.
It is not a coincidence when a coach can consistently maximize the talent on his roster, when they win despite the fact that their talent says they shouldn’t.
Painter is one of the very best in the business, and he’s now one win away from getting the credit that he deserves for it.