Purdue is one of many teams in the field that don't fit the norm. Purdue's playing style may not wow you, but Boilermakers are an experienced title contender.
To see Purdue coach Matt Painter on a Tuesday morning in February is to see him in his element: a mess of neon-striped notes spread before him at the head of an oval conference table, game tape paused on the projection screen in the meeting room he treats as his office. At home you might find him at the foot of his bed, reviewing film on his 80-inch flatscreen, Bob Seger blaring from the speakers. When he's had enough screens, Painter is content to kick back and read ... about basketball. "I'm really simple," he says.
In a field heavy with teams that don't fit the norm—strict and suffocating Virginia, young and lottery-bound Duke, perimeter-oriented Villanova, relentlessly pressing West Virginia—the Boilermakers' style is as straightforward as the man at their helm. They defend well (30th nationally in adjusted efficiency) and plainly, using a man-to-man approach from which they have not varied for even one possession. They are experienced, the lone title contender to start four seniors. (The exception, 6'1" sophomore Carsen Edwards, is their leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points, and their most effective playmaker.)
Purdue's lineup is anchored by 7'2", 290-pound Isaac Haas, a brawny, feather-touched post-up machine, around whom start a quartet of shooters—guards Edwards, P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias, and forward Vincent Edwards (no relation)—who each make at least 39.2% of their threes. Purdue is one of only six teams to rank among the country's 30 most efficient on both ends of the floor.
All of the pieces are there for a deep NCAA tournament run ... even if the Boilers won't always wow you along the way. "We don't have an abundance of athleticism," Painter says. "A lot of our talent is our skill level—how we shoot, how we take care of the ball."
Before this season, much of the discussion about the team centered on the piece who would be missing: 6'8", 250-pound forward Caleb (Biggie) Swanigan, the 2017 Big Ten Player of the Year, who was drafted 26th by the Trail Blazers last June. Despite its veteran roster, Purdue was expected to take a step back after winning a conference title.
But on last August's preseason trip to Taipei, Taiwan, where the Boilermakers won silver while representing the U.S. in the World University Games, they got a glimpse of their new selves—and liked what they saw. "We lost one of the best players in the country, but we're playing so much differently," says Thompson. "The floor's more spread. We're quicker, play faster."
Then another foreign trip threatened to derail the season just as it was starting. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Purdue headed to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. What was supposed to be a résumé-booster instead started with an overtime loss to Tennessee—not yet considered the contender it has become—followed by a loser's-bracket defeat by Western Kentucky. At a luxury resort in one of the planet's most idyllic settings, the Boilermakers were so despondent, they hardly left their rooms. "It was hell," says Mathias. They salvaged the trip with a win over similarly slumping Arizona in the event's seventh-place game, then set about correcting their faults. "We didn't have a lot of fire," says Haas. "We had a lot of fake energy before those games."
That win over the Wildcats proved pivotal. Their defense refocused and their urgency renewed, Purdue embarked on a school-record 19-game winning streak. Soon a genuine energy followed them around campus, where classmates were buzzing about the team's latest AP poll ranking—it reached No. 3 at one point, matching the program's highest spot in 30 years—to the point, recalls Thompson, that "this dude almost got hit by a car because he was trying to say 'What's up?'"
It has not all been good. In February, Purdue dropped three straight games that were bookended by single-possession wins—a reminder of vulnerability after two spotless months. "People said, Oh, you threw the ball inside too much," Painter says of the late-season swoon. "We got quality shots. We needed to make a couple more."
There has been an optimism among the old gold-and-black faithful that these Boilermakers might be the first since 1980 to reach the season's final weekend. But that comes with a caution born of past disappointments, from Glenn Robinson's wrenching his back wrestling in a hotel room before the '94 Elite Eight, to letdowns as No. 1 seeds in '88 and '96. "It always feels like, as a fan, you're waiting for that other shoe to drop," says 2002 graduate Travis Miller, who has run the Purdue sports blog Hammer and Rails since '09.
Painter says he feels no pressure, that he doesn't need a slew of victories in March to validate this season. He knows how fickle the single-elimination format can be. "That's just one game," Painter says. His team is built to play many more.