Purdue Finds Fearless Confidence in Role Players to Advance to National Championship

Zach Edey posted another double double, but the Boilermakers relied on long-range shooting from several others to get past NC State.
Jones’s four three-pointers were key for the Boilermakers in Saturday’s Final Four victory.
Jones’s four three-pointers were key for the Boilermakers in Saturday’s Final Four victory. / Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, when the Purdue Boilermakers were seeing a dream season collapse in real time against the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, you could watch the confidence slowly vanish from the Boilermakers jump shooters’ faces. As big shot after big shot clanked off, Purdue’s shooters seemed inclined to do, well, anything but shoot. 

Whoa, he doesn’t want it. He doesn’t want anything to do with it, coach Matt Painter recalled thinking to himself in an offseason interview with Sports Illustrated

The difference in the collective personality of the 2024 Boilermakers was on full display in Saturday’s Final Four clash with the NC State Wolfpack. This was, by no means, a perfect showing by Purdue, which turned the ball over 16 times and allowed the Wolfpack to hang around far too long after a hot early start. There were some nervy moments, like when the lead was cut to three late in the first half and several chances for the Pack to trim things inside six points in the second, but the way Purdue responded to that adversity was a strong reminder of why this team is one win away from a national championship. 

Faced with those tense moments, Purdue didn’t revert into its shell and go all in on feeding Zach Edey. Sure, the two-time National Player of the Year stacked up his fifth 20-point, 10-rebound game of the NCAA tournament and was the best player on the floor, but it was Purdue’s other weapons that pushed it over the hump in what, at times, was a slog of an offensive game. 

Three different Boilermakers made multiple threes (four from Lance Jones, three from Fletcher Loyer and two from Mason Gillis), and those shots came in some of the game’s most pivotal moments. Loyer drilled a key three in the closing seconds of the first half to double the Boilermaker lead heading into the locker room. Gillis and Jones made big ones in short order to stretch the lead from six to 12 with the game’s control seemingly teetering midway through the half. Then came the knockout blow, a swish from Loyer that gave Purdue a 15-point lead with under five minutes to play. And on all of those shots, there was never a second thought about firing away. 

“We’ve just done too much [work] not to shoot it with confidence,” Loyer said postgame.

Some of that confidence can be attributed to Painter’s steady hand in response to last year’s embarrassing upset defeat. Purdue shot 32.2% from deep in 2022–23 (276th nationally), but there were no drastic shifts from Painter to blow up the roster. The veteran coach was steadfast in his belief he had a team of great shooters who, well, didn’t make shots. Loyer’s 33% mark a season ago is a good example: Loyer was an elite three-point shooter in high school, shot the cover off the ball early in his freshman season, then faded big time down the stretch. There was never a doubt on Painter’s side that the in-state product would eventually become the knockdown shooter he was recruited to be, and that investment helped Loyer through a lot of self-described sleepless nights. 

“Having a head coach that believes in you … it means the world,” Loyer said. “It’s what has made my decision to go to Purdue the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s what makes this team so special and what has put us in the Final Four.” 

Another key was the insertion of Jones, who has brought what he called a “different type of swagger” to this season’s group. Jones wasn’t an overly touted portal piece after shooting just 37% from the field and 28% from three in his final season with the Southern Illinois Salukis, but turned into exactly what the Boilermakers needed and more. The initial reasons for signing him may have been defense and quickness, but Jones has had a penchant for taking and making game-changing threes this season, and the edge he plays with has trickled down to the rest of these Boilermakers. 

“I think my whole agenda and mojo has rubbed off in a good way,” Jones said. “We’re not going to let you roll over us.”

Jones’s confidence might be best illustrated by a three he missed Saturday, rather than one he made. After an NC State turnover, Jones led the break and fired away from well beyond the arc. While the shot didn’t connect, it’s a shot Purdue teams in previous years probably wouldn’t have even attempted, pulling things out to run a set (likely feeding Edey). Part of Painter’s tweaks from last season to this one was playing more freely and with more pace, empowering players like Jones to make plays himself and playing more out of simple ball-screen looks rather than sets. 

The result: a fearless, confident Purdue. It’s been obvious since the buzzer sounded against FDU that Purdue’s ability to go on a Virginia-like redemption run in 2023–24 was predicated on everyone other than Edey. Could Purdue trust anyone else? 

The answer, delivered once again Saturday night: a resounding yes. And because of it, the Boilermakers are now 40 minutes from college basketball immortality. 


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Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).