How far does the apple fall from the tree? Over his 25 seasons at the helm of Purdue basketball, Gene Keady won 61 percent of his Big Ten games, and at least a share of the conference title six times. He went to the Dance in 17 of those 25 seasons, and he rightfully occupies a prominent spot in Big Ten lore.
But there was a knock on Keady, which was that despite all this success, Purdue advanced past the Sweet 16 just twice. That seems slightly disappointing compared to his in-conference success, though it's well ahead of Matt Painter's pace. Like Keady, Painter has won sixty percent of his Big Ten games, and he's won the conference twice in 12 seasons. But the next time he advances past the Sweet 16 will be his first.
Sometimes those tournament exits were to Final Four-bound teams like Duke and Connecticut, but there was also a trouncing at the hands of VCU, and the devastating double overtime loss to Arkansas-Little Rock. Last year Kansas blew the doors off in their Sweet 16 matchup, so Painter was once again denied.
This year's team should be just as good as any of the other talented Purdue teams that were close to reaching the Elite 8. Caleb Swanigan leaves big shoes to fill, but Purdue returns a lot of quality pieces, including rising sophomore Carsen Edwards. Edwards is a player that, if my theory is right, should have a big season. Last year, Edwards shot a ton, and he wasn't all that accurate. His eFG measured in at just 45.5, which is not a fabulous mark for an undersized shooting guard that does not get to the foul line. His on-ball defense was good, although at 6-0 one wonders how much he could really contribute to limiting baskets. Basically, he was PJ Thompson if the latter added another 100 misses or so.
Despite that, and the fact he was on a deep and talented team, Edwards played nearly 60 percent of the available minutes. Now, the only explanations one can fathom are either
- Matt Painter is bad at his job, or
- Matt Painter saw Edwards do things in practice that other players on his roster could not do
I'm inclined to believe it was the latter, and that Painter was willing to suffer through some wild chucks in order to get that out of Edwards. As a sophomore, Edwards will find and make better shots, and his assertiveness could have him primed for a huge season.
Swanigan's playmaking was just one aspect of his game, however, there was also his interior offense and his overall defense. For that, the contributions will have to come from Isaac Haas, a player who, throughout his time in West Lafayette, has been simultaneously the best and worst player on the floor. The 7-2, 300-pound behemouth will sometimes look like 1997 Shaq, like when he dropped 24 points in just 22 minutes against Illinois. But then there are games like he put up versus Indiana, where he played just 6 minutes because he somehow committed 4 fouls in that amount of time (with 3 turnovers, to boot).
Haas' talent and upside has never been in question, but his consistency leaves a lot to be desired. In the past, that was OK—there was AJ Hammons and Swanigan to grab all the rebounds and defend the post. But I'm not sure there's a capable line of defense after Haas this season. Painter will have a couple of freshmen at his disposal in Jacquil Taylor and Matt Haarms, but neither of those guys were close to Haas' recruiting pedigree. It's likely that neither one could be trusted with starter-level minutes this season.
The other pieces are well-known and without questions. Vincent Edwards could challenge for conference Player of the Year after winning Third Team honors as a junior last season. Thompson is the kind of role player you love to have—seemingly only attempting the shots he makes. Ryan Cline will look to expand his game beyond sharpshooter, and Dakota Mathias might finally get some recognition for his excellent all-around play.
Everything's there for Painter to finally get to the Elite 8. But this isn't the first time you could have said that.