Is There Time To Change The Course Of Purdue Basketball?

Albert Einstein is sometimes credited with saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

That, in a nutshell, describes Purdue basketball over the last 42 years under Gene Keady and Matt Painter.

Although it irritates Purdue fans when national media laugh at the Boilermakers’ NCAA tournament failures, it’s difficult to argue when your favorite team is frequently the victim of a head-shaking upset. Chris Beard would not be a multimillionaire coach at the University of Texas today had his Arkansas Little Rock team not sent Purdue packing in the first round of the 2016 tournament.

Now, Shaheen Holloway is going to reap a major payday – likely at his alma mater Seton Hall – for that embarrassing performance Friday night that saw Saint Peter’s become the first 15 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Elite Eight.

It’s rare to call a 29-win season a failure but that’s just the hard truth for Purdue basketball. No Big Ten regular season championship. No Big Ten tournament championship. No Final Four to extend a drought that has lasted since my freshman year in college.

Jaden Ivey, the All-American guard and Purdue’s first projected NBA lottery pick since Glenn Robinson in 1994, could not have played worse at a more critical moment in Boilermaker basketball history. That performance likely will keep him off lists of all-time great Boilermakers.

In retrospect, the moment when Purdue earned the first No. 1 ranking from The Associated Press in school history was the peak of the 2021-22 season. From an outsider’s perspective, some of the players did not handle the attention with humility. Which is a kind way of saying the ranking went to their heads.

In the weeks that followed, the Boilermakers didn’t seem to learn after sleepwalking at Rutgers (losing on a halfcourt shot), playing down to North Carolina State’s level (rallying to win in overtime) and a rare home loss to Wisconsin.

I’ll argue that Keady is not in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame today because of Purdue’s postseason failures during his 25 years on the bench in Mackey Arena. It’s galling to those who support Keady’s candidacy that these cheating coaches – Jim Boeheim, Larry Brown, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Bill Self – are enshrined.

Although well respected in the coaching community, barring a detour Painter is headed down the same path. There’s just no explaining away losses to inferior tournament teams like No. 11 seed VCU in 2011, No. 12 seed Arkansas Little Rock, No. 13 seed North Texas last season and now Saint Peter’s.

Is there time to change the course of Purdue basketball? Of course.

Painter has shown willingness to change in the past, most notably following the last place finish in the Big Ten during the 2013-14 season. Recruiting has been elevated. It’s a strong possibility that Purdue will have recruited two consecutive Indiana Mr. Basketball winners for the first time since having three in a row from 1964-66 (Denny Brady, Billy Keller, Rick Mount). Braden Smith of Westfield and Fletcher Loyer of Homestead are among the five finalists to wear No. 1 for the Indiana All-Stars this summer.

Incoming 7-footer William Berg of Sweden was recently profiled in a Washington Post story about the lineage of Purdue big men under Painter.

The big question is where will the toughness and leadership come from when the pressure is on? The absence of both was the difference between an Elite Eight-Final Four run this season not to mention a Big Ten regular season championship.

In addition to Ivey, seniors Trevion Williams, Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter Jr. are also departing. Isaiah Thompson, slated to be the only senior on Purdue’s roster for 2022-23, entered the transfer portal earlier this week.

In addition to Smith, Loyer and Berg, forward Camden Heide is the fourth member of the true freshman class. Combined with redshirt freshmen Trey Kaufman-Renn and Brian Waddell, nearly half of the scholarship roster is comprised of players yet to officially step on the Mackey Arena court.

Assuming Edey returns (7-4 centers just don’t fit the NBA most wanted profile these days), he’s a favorite for preseason Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Mason Gillis returns at power forward, or the 4 as it’s being called these days. He’ll have to fight off 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball Caleb Furst, who took the starting job before COVID sidelined him and opened the door for Gillis.

Purdue needs the fearless scoring threat of Brandon Newman from his freshman season and not the Newman who wasn’t in the playing rotation for most of the Big Ten schedule. Former Pennsylvania Mr. Basketball Ethan Morton showed flashes in his first full season that he belongs in the starting lineup somewhere.

With a true point guard and a scoring guard topping the list of Purdue’s needs, it appears Painter will have to stick a toe into the transfer pool, which at last glance held more than 1,000 players. The Boilermakers were one of a handful of schools last season without a transfer on their roster.

In a dream scenario, former Lawrence Central star Nijel Pack would return to the state following the forced resignation of Bruce Weber at Kansas State. Pack is currently exploring his NBA Draft options, but media reports indicate the 6-0 point guard is likely to return to college for his junior season.

Notable names in the transfer portal include former Indiana guard Rob Phinisee, Illinois guard Andre Curbelo and Indiana State guard Tyreke Key.

Next in line

Ever since Purdue’s last place finish in 2013-14, Painter has prioritized finding a shooter in each recruiting class since then.

Dakota Mathias. Ryan Cline. Carsen Edwards. Sasha Stefanovic. Brandon Newman. Jaden Ivey. Brian Waddell.

Tuesday night, Fletcher Loyer showed off his shooting skills in New Orleans. The Homestead star matched Cline’s 2015 feat of winning the national high school 3-point shooting contest.

Loyer topped Duke recruit Kyle Fillipowski 21-16 and Austin Montgomery 21-13 to win the He Gets Us 3-point Championship. Then, Loyer captured the Rocket Mortgage Battle of Champions by topping women’s winner Taylor McCabe (Iowa recruit) 21-19.

He completed the championship trifecta by joining Georgia Tech recruit Tonie Morgan and Learic Davis to claim the TaxAct Team Shootout.

Purdue fans can watch how Loyer earned his titles at 1 p.m. Sunday when CBS airs the High School Slam Dunk & 3-point championships.

Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Courier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.