Busting Brackets

Matt Painter finally has the right recipe to win with his biggest star

Matt Painter has given Purdue basketball a distinct identity, but it's not one of a team that wins in March. This year, Painter has finally put the right mix around Zach Edey and it could take him to the Final Four.
Purdue v Michigan
Purdue v Michigan / Mike Mulholland/GettyImages

In the era of NIL and the transfer portal, two tectonic shifts that are at least partially responsible for convincing some of college basketball’s superstar coaches to call it a career, the sport lacks an identity. March Madness provides the Jack Gohlkes and Doug Ederts with their 15 minutes of fame, but there are few perennial forces, like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and Jay Wright once were, reemerging in the same place every season. Matt Painter’s program at Purdue, however, is a constant amongst the chaos.

Fans and media rightfully gripe about a lack of familiarity in the men’s game, forcing everyone to reacquaint themselves with 362 new rosters each November, and turning many to the women’s game which has managed to sidestep the pitfalls of unlimited free agency. Yet, for virtually every year since 2005, when Painter took over in West Lafayette, if you turn on a Purdue basketball game, you know what you’re going to get. That’s a team with a big man in the middle and an elite offensive unit as the scaffolding around him. 

Carl Landry took Painter to his first NCAA Tournament appearance at Purdue, JaJuan Johnson brought him to his first Sweet 16, A.J. Hammons bridged the gap through the down years, and Isaac Haas brought the Boilers back. In 2019, 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, along with Carsen Edwards and Ryan Kline, were a Mamadi Diakite game-tying floater at the buzzer away from finally getting Painter to the Final Four, and now, Zach Edey has Purdue back on the cusp. 

At this point, it goes without saying, (though in his off-day press conference, Painter made a point to) that Edey is the best of the bunch. The presumptive back-to-back National Player of the Year has practically reconfigured the geometry of the sport, dominating from the interior while everyone else is constantly racing to the three-point line. On Friday night in the Sweet 16, Edey led Purdue with 27 points in an 80-68 win over Gonzaga, outscoring the Bulldogs 42-26 in the paint. 

Sunday, Edey will play in the first Elite Eight of his career, matching up against Tennessee, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit with a spot in the Final Four, something that has long eluded Painter, on the line. 

However, unlike last season when Fairleigh Dickinson took down Purdue, Edey has had a bit of help on this tournament run. Braden Smith added 14 points and a staggering 15 assists in Friday’s win, while Lance Jones chipped in with 12 points. Painter has been desperately trying to make the same recipe for years, but this time, he got the ingredients just right. 

“We’ve learned through the years with our size,” Painter said, listing off his favorite former big men on the Thursday before the Midwest Regional Seminfinal, “We’ve learned a lot. You learn from your players because of how people deal with it and how people go.” 

How did Painter decide which meal to cook at Purdue? Well, he just used what was already in the kitchen. 

“Just for me personally, Carl Landry was our best player when we got the job, he played ten years in the NBA, and we circled around him.” Painter said when asked about his program evolving into the proverbial “Big Man U” of college basketball. “So any time you have success in a program, you use your former players as part of recruiting going forward.”

“We've had a lot of all-conference bigs. So when we sit down to talk to somebody who's next, you've got a lot of people there -- I think the one thing you can show now analytically is there's a lot of great programs out there that do not utilize their big guys. My whole thing is I'm going to circle around our best players, whether you're big, small, in between, it doesn't matter.”

Painter recruits to his team’s strengths and that’s given them such a distinct identity in a sport that has seen a homogenization of styles trickle down from the NBA game. Yet, Painter has stayed true to his principles and it may finally pay off, in the biggest way possible. 

“Again, people can look at it any way they want, but I think that coaches, first of all, have to stay true to themselves in terms of what they believe in and their core values. You can't get away from that. There's no doubt that he is a player development type coach,” said Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes of his Elite Eight adversary. 

The Gravity of a Star

So, he can take bigs, even ones like Edey who was just a three-star recruit back in 2020, and turn him into the best player in college basketball, but how do you manage the gravity of a 7-foot-4 300-pound superstar? In 2023 the team lacked balance and collapsed into a black-hole. 

At times this year, Tennessee has dealt with a similar problem. A helio-centric offense with SEC Player of the Year Dalton Knecht at the center. Barnes was just integrating the Northern Colorado transfer when Purdue and Tennessee met in the Maui Invitational back in November, a 71-67 Boilermakers win. Even after an entire season, that balance has been a hard one to strike. When do you feed your best player and how much is too much?

“I told him last night when he took a couple of shots, I said, you're going to have to spray that ball. But when he makes a couple, he's like any guys that can score, he'll gonna do the old heat check and see if it's going,” Barnes said of his best offensive player. “But we believe in balance in the flow of the game, we're expecting those guys to play off the concepts that we talk about, work on from day one.”

In Edey’s fourth season and Year 2 of the Smith-Fletcher Loyer backcourt, Purdue is no longer stuck on that unforgiving see-saw. 

The Final Ingredients

This past offseason, Painter added Jones, a Southern Illinois transfer, to in Jones’s words, add defense and experience. He also got redshirt freshman Camden Heide healthy and suddenly the team was complete. Now, after winning its first three tournament games by a combined 79 points, everything looks easy for Purdue. As Heide put it, those are the perks of playing with a superstar. 

“You know, you’re dealing with the best player in the country in Zach Edey, and he draws so much attention, so guys like me, I just have got to be ready to catch and shoot or just play off a closeout because it’s hard for teams to rotate when they’ve got to double and deal with Zach in the post.”

It’s not just the on-court chemistry that is improved for Purdue. The energy around the team is a lot more free. Any time spent around the 2024 Boilermakers reveals a group desperate to take its coach to the Final Four for the first time in his career, yet entirely unencumbered by the immense weight of that task. More than his defense, experience, or shooting, if you ask one of his teammates you’ll learn that Lance Jones is the one who brings levity to the locker room, and that’s been his most important role.

“His love for the game of basketball. He makes it enjoyable for me to go to ‘work’ every single day” said Heide when asked what his newest teammate brought to Purdue. “What you guys see in a game with 20,000 people, him smiling and dancing and laughing is what you’re going to see in a private practice that we just had.”

Purdue has rightfully drawn comparisons to the 2019 Virginia team that went from being the first team to ever lose to a 16-seed as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2018, to a national title, taking out the Boilermakers on the way. 

Tony Bennett didn’t make sweeping changes to his program after falling to UMBC, like Painter, he made small tweaks and trusted his team to improve. From Edey’s perspective, it’s not exactly alchemy that turned last year’s postseason failure into gold. 

“Our guards just got older, that’s really the big thing,” Edey said, just one day away from a game he acknowledged is not like any other, “Fletch and Braden became sophomores and they learned how to deal with different scenarios.”

Over his time in college basketball, Edey has learned the same thing. First, making the Sweet 16 with Jaden Ivey as the team’s primary catalyst. 

“It’s just different styles, kind of learning to play a different way. With Jaden, it was more set him a ball-screen and go try to get a rebound,” Edey said with a wry smile, “but with Braden, you set him a ball-screen and you roll to the rim ready for the ball, it’s not saying one player is better than the other, it’s just saying they play differently, so just learning how to try to complement different players.”

That idea of familiarity permeated Purdue’s Saturday media availability. Whether it was Lance Jones talking about learning how to properly throw an entry pass to the post, something he rarely had to do at SIU, or Edey and Smith expounding on their remarkable on-court symbiosis but Fletcher Loyer summed it up best. 

“We control the game better, we know where our shots and our looks are going to come from, we know how they’re going to guard Zach, how they’re going to guard us in ball-screens, and we realize what we need to do to win and that’s take care of the ball, rebound, and get stops.”

Edey’s remarkable career could come to an end on Sunday with a loss to Tennessee, but his head coach’s philosophies won’t. A Matt Painter team will always look like a Matt Painter team. That’s not just very big, it’s also very good.

Whether he makes his first Final Four or not, Painter is one of the best coaches in the sport. Though a win, and maybe two more for good measure, would cement his legacy not just alongside his biggest superstar but the best team of his career. The recipe finally perfected, and the stars finally aligned.

Next. All is fair in love and March Madness. All is fair in love and March Madness. dark