Reflections on Watching Your #1 Seed Fall to a #16
My wife Joan and I had our first date at a Purdue basketball game many moons ago, and we have watched just about every game we could in the years since. Our respective approaches to a game are so different that we watch in separate rooms. She berates. I encourage. At the end of the game, Joan looks for someone to blame. I look for someone to console.
Until Friday night, when #1 seed Purdue fell to #16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), there was little need for consoling or blaming. Purdue had enjoyed a storybook season. Picked sixth in the 14-team Big 10 in the pre-season, and not ranked at all among the nation's top 25, Purdue won 22 of its first 23 games and held the #1 spot in AP polls for weeks on end. Among their wins was a three-game sweep of West Virginia, Gonzaga, and Duke in the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament in November.
More amazing still, Purdue beat each of these teams — the latter two ranked in top 10 — by a dozen or more points. Although the Boilermakers stumbled a bit toward season's end, they won the Big Ten title by a whopping three-game margin; swept the Big 10 post-season tournament; and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before, alas, falling to Fairleigh Dickinson.
Tracking the media coverage of that final loss reminded me of just how venal and superficial sports journalism — and sports fans — can be. Here are some sample headlines:
Purdue is the choke artist program of the decade after another March Madness implosion
March Madness: 'Fire Matt Painter' goes viral after Purdue upset
Is Matt Painter on the HOT SEAT??? Purdue is SHOCKED by FDU in the NCAA Tournament
I write this not as a special pleading for Purdue or for coach Matt Painter, but as a reflection on college sports and the values of the fans that sustain them. In a decade or so, I suspect, sports may be the only feature of university life that keeps their hosts viable. Attention needs to be paid.
For the record, Purdue has made the NCAA tournament the last eight seasons. In four of those seasons, the team reached the round of 16. In 2019, only a fluke play at the buzzer kept Purdue out of the Final Four. The team that beat them, the University of Virginia, had become the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed just the season prior. After beating Purdue in the 2019 tournament, UVA, another solid program, went on to win it all.
What makes Purdue's performance so consistently impressive is that Painter wins with college students. I can imagine the players actually going to class with an intent to graduate. At certain other institutions, college basketball has become more of a racket than ever. The now wide-open "transfer portal" and the lure of NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals for players have expanded the possibility for corruption.
Purdue players are not immune to temptation, but watching them play this season was like watching the Hickory Huskers in the movie Hoosiers. The team's two starting guards were freshmen, both from Indiana. At season's end, four of the team's five starters were Indiana kids, none of them transfers. Among them, there was just one discreet tattoo, something of a modern record.
Throughout his eighteen seasons, Purdue coach Matt Painter has made a practice of finding overlooked players and training them up. If each of Duke's five starters in the Phil Knight tourney was a top 50 pick coming out of high school, Purdue's highest ranked player was a #96, and Purdue won the Duke game by 19.
In 2020, Painter hit the recruiting mother lode when he offered a scholarship to the otherwise unwanted Canadian high school senior Zach Edey. In 2020, Edey was ranked 436th in his graduating class, 76th among centers. This year, the 7-4 junior was named National College Player of the Year.
During Painter's eighteen years as head coach, Purdue has never had a one-and-done. Among his players, only one is now in the NBA. Not even Edey is a projected first round pick. The University of Kentucky, by contrast, has 27 former players on NBA rosters. Few of those made it as far as their sophomore season in Lexington. With this talent, scandal-ridden coach John Calipari has not reached the final four since 2015 and did not make the tournament at all in 2021.
If there is a weakness to Painter's strategy, it is that sometimes it takes an NBA-quality player or two to push the team to an NCAA title. That is a downside, I believe, that most conscientious fans are willing to live with. As a rule, however, the conscientious expend less energy on Twitter than do the hysterical.
Living in Kansas City as I do, I took some solace on Saturday when #1 seed University of Kansas fell in the second round to Arkansas. Over the last 20 years, KU coach Bill Self has run easily the most successful college program in the country, and yet even KU has lost in the round of 32 in three of the last four seasons. (Winning it all in 2022 helped ease the sting.)
If Self had been less successful, he likely would not have survived the program's shady dealings with Adidas. A few years back, an Adaidas rep admitted in federal court that he had paid tens of thousands of dollars to prospects to shepherd them to KU.
To compete at its perennial top-10 level, the KU program has to deal with sleazy middlemen like those at Adidas who routinely corrupt coaches, players, and parents alike. The alternative is to take a step down. Accustomed as they are to winning, fans would not like that. Accustomed as he is to his $10-million-a-year salary, Self would not like that, either.
Self's reputation for winning is strong enough to recruit high-quality high school players to Kansas. New Kansas State coach Jerome Tang had no such reputation. To field any kind of team in his first season, he had to dip into the transfer portal, and dip he did. The top nine scorers at K-State this year played college ball elsewhere before coming to Manhattan, Kansas. Unlike its more prestigious neighbor, Kansas State made the final sixteen this year.
Tang was not alone in scouring the transfer portals. Many of the top programs have loaded up with transfers. I am genuinely curious how coaches lure these players to places like rural Kansas. With all the money at stake for the university, and all the millions being bet on college sports, coaches had better be damn careful.
For all the razzing I took from friends after the Purdue loss, my friends envy me the innocence of my game-watching experience. They, too, would rather root for a college team than for a basketball factory. They, too, would like to follow players over the years and watch them mature — or, at the very least, get to know their names.
The reason Purdue sells out its nearly 15,000-seat arena every game, even when school is out of a session, is that many fans feel as I do. To even think of firing a coach like Painter is a submission to the madness of crowds, a much too common thing nowadays.
Jack Cashill's newest book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America's Cities, is available for pre-sale.
Image: Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.