I don’t really want to talk about the game. Not because I’m worried I’ll fly into an emotional rage (I’d like to think that at this stage in my life I can mostly keep an even keel about these things) but because I hate to repeat myself. I’ve even begun to repeat myself complaining about repeating myself. This team is what it is, and what it is, isn’t very good.
Rather, let’s talk about Matt Painter. Although there are some that want to run him out on a rail, I think most Purdue fans agree that one bad season doesn’t undo six good ones. I sit firmly on the “Supporters of Matt Painter” side. Fact is, I think there are some aspects of his job that he could do better, but I trust that Purdue has right guy on their bench.
Observing Matt Painter over the course of the season has been very interesting, perhaps the most interesting sub-plot of the season, beyond the loss of Hummel, beyond the integration of the freshmen, beyond the development of AJ Hammons. Matt Painter has always – almost to a fault – been very honest when speaking to the media about his team. It’s a trait rarely seen in the upper-echelon of the college basketball coaching ranks. The typical characters – Jim Calhoun’s bored curmudgeon, Tom Crean’s head cheerleader, John Calapari’s toothy salesman – we’re very familiar with. But Painter has a certain style of him. He’s not long on words, but what he does say is meaty.
He commented numerous times at the beginning of the season that he was sure his team was good, he just didn’t know when. As the season has crumbled around him, he has been more forthcoming about what he thinks is wrong with the team. He has talked about selfishness (from a style of play standpoint); a lack of effort, a lack of toughness. A divergence from the core competencies that has made Purdue, Purdue. A lack of leadership from those we all (him included, I’m sure) assumed would be in that role.
I can only imagine what he was feeling when he was escorted (in the presence of security, no less) off the court and into the bowels of Assembly Hall Wednesday night. Truth be told, the officiating wasn’t really that bad. On the play in question you could have made the argument that Sandi had been fouled, an argument that Painter vociferously made in the direction of a ref who had apparently had enough. The technical foul he was assessed then fractured the levee, and Matt Painter absolutely lost it. A season worth of failure, unrealized expectations, and struggle flooded out in a torrent of vitriol, focused like a laser on the offending ref. A couple Purdue players made an effort to calm him down, but quickly backed off. Sometimes you gotta let a guy do his thing.
The ref was really just a proxy for a program that has failed to coalesce under Painter’s direction this season. You can only yell at your own guys so often; and frankly, if that haven’t (or are incapable) of getting it by now, then it’s just not going to happen. But that frustration needs to be let out somehow.
At least Painter’s “give-a-shit” switch is still on, although one has to wonder who else you can say that about. Rapheal Davis? He plays hard, although he wasn’t very effective in 24 minutes against Illinois. Anthony Johnson? He certainly plays hard during the games, although despite being in the program for three years he still struggles to make the right play. Sandi? Who else? I don’t know. Most of the guys on the team are capable of excelling within the Purdue system, but the inconsistency of effort is negating any positives. You can’t pass up an open big on the block in favor of jacking up a low-percentage jumper. You can’t jog your way around a screen and give a shooter a clean look from distance. You can’t allow yourself to be blocked out by just standing there and not moving your feet. These are basic basketball concepts, the very definition of “fundamental” basketball. And if I were writing this in November, maybe we could excuse it away. But it’s the middle of February. This is Boilermaker basketball.
The only truly negative experience is one that you learn nothing from. When this season is mercifully ended, like an injured race horse put out of its misery, there will be plenty of time for reflection and self-assessment at every level of the program. Right now, the team is staring a rematch against #1 Indiana in Bloomington right in the face. I’ve already begun to brace myself. Let’s hope that the fire displayed by Matt Painter stirs something within the boys in black and gold and the season can be ended on a respectable note.