March Madness: Purdue’s painful NCAA tournament history reaches boiling point of failure in historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson

Purdue was on the verge of a scandal with the NCAA Men’s Tournament on Friday night when the TV cameras turned their attention to the Boilermakers fighters during a timeout.

Head coach Matt Painter was scribbling on a notepad, desperately trying to draw a game plan to score five points in 1.2 seconds.

That moment of futility at the end of Purdue’s 63-58 loss to No. 16 seeded Fairleigh Dickinson is the perfect metaphor for the Boilermakers’ harrowing story in March. Painter always seems to search in vain for a play that could spare Purdue 43 years of suffering and heartache in the NCAA Tournament.

Since its last Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has won 10 regular season Big Ten titles, made 31 NCAA Tournament appearances, and was No. 1 four times. None of these teams returned to the Final Four. Some have failed in the most painful ways imaginable.

  • In 1994, the Purdue team led by Glenn Robinson won 29 games, took first place, and advanced to the Elite Eight. Robinson then suffered a back injury – allegedly fooling around in a rowdy act in a hotel room with teammates – and scored a pathetic 6-of-22 goal in a loss to Duke.

  • In 1996, Purdue won the Big Ten again and took first place. This time, the Boilermakers narrowly avoided a loss to 16th-seeded Western Carolina before losing a round later to Georgia.

  • In 2000, Perdue took several breaks and earned a great opportunity, he only needed to defeat eighth seed Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. Brian Cardinal and the Boilermakers endured an untimely late-scoring drought to lose 64–60.

  • In 2010, Indianapolis was the venue for the Final Four, and Purdue had a team capable of contending for the title. Then star Robbie Hummel suffered the first of multiple ACL tears in late February, and the Boilermakers were never the same again.

  • In 2019, Carsen Edwards put the third seeded Perdue on the back and the Boilermakers beat the top seeded Virginia in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass from Kihei Clark and a stunning jump shot from Mamady Diakite kept the Cavaliers hopeful of a national title.

  • In 2022, the Purdue team, which included future NBA lottery player Jaden Ivey and a pair of talented 7-footers, only needed to beat the 15th-seeded St. Peters to advance to the Elite Eight. Instead, Doug Edert and the Peacoxes added to their legend by scoring four points from a deficit in the last five minutes.

Some close calls and close misses seemed unfortunate. Purdue’s latest NCAA Tournament crash was self-inflicted.

Fairleigh Dickinson ranked below 300 as the most advanced player in the NCAA Tournament. His head coach was in charge of the Division II program at this time last year. Its lineup is the shortest in all of Collegiate Basketball Division I.

The Knights haven’t even won a regular season or conference tournament title in the lowest-ranked conference among collegiate basketball teams this season. Merrimack won both, but was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament in the final year of the Division II to Division I transition.

And yet, with Friday’s game hanging in the balance, it was Farley Dickinson who played big and Perdue shrunk from that point on.

March 17, 2023;  Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Fairleigh Dickinson Knights defenseman Heru Bliegen (3) hits Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edie (15) in the first half at the Nationwide Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Defenseman Hera Bliegen and Fairleigh Dickinson weren’t intimidated by center Zach Edey (left) on Friday night. (Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)

Farleigh Dickinson’s offensive strategy was to turn a lack of size into strength by stretching the floor and attacking the basket. The presence of 7-foot 4 Zach Edie could leave Purdue vulnerable against a team that could force him to defend in space, but the Boilermakers did a decent job of holding off the Knights with 38.4% of shots from the field.

Everything went wrong for Purdue when he had the ball. Fairley Dickinson camouflaged his lack of defensive size by filling Edie with a few defensemen to force anyone other than the national college basketball leader to beat them. Edie scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but made only one shot in the last 12 minutes of the game.

Rookie backcourt Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were the catalyst for Purdue, who rose to No. 1 in the nation earlier this season, but their late-season struggles also contributed to the Boilermakers’ vulnerability in the NCAA Tournament. Loyer and Smith were unable to pass the ball to Edie, nor were they able to land the jump shot that Fairley Dickinson dared them to.

Their shooting problems contributed to Perdue scoring 5 of 26 from beyond the arc. Smith also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 losses.

After the loss, Painter tried to sort it out. How could this happen to a team that beat Duke, Gonzaga and Marquette in a non-conference game to take the regular season and Big Ten titles?

“We’ve been in the top five seeds for six years in a row,” Painter said. And that’s all you’re trying to do. You are simply trying to fight to get into the best possible position. And now we’re in the best possible position, and it’s happening. And obviously it hurts. This is very painful”.

The reflex reaction is to blame Painter for another March crisis. There are sure to be a lot of hot artists out there who say that his teams are always choking and that he will never win the NCAA Tournament.

The reality is that Purdue would not have been able to continue winning Big Ten titles and number one without Painter. It’s fair to wonder if he needs to rethink his approach to the NCAA Tournament, but there’s no reason to puzzle over what he’s built and start over.

Even this year, the team didn’t start the season in the AP top 25, sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players. Purdue has exceeded all expectations until the last March debacle on Friday.

There was a time when people said Bill Self couldn’t win in March. Same with Scott Drew and Jay Wright.

Maybe someday Painter will put an end to this conversation as well. But for at least one more year, he is the coach of a program that rekindles hope every year from November until the end of the Big Ten tournament, only to collapse at the most important moment.


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