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Pain. Revisiting Purdue Basketball’s 2023 March Sadness

After almost 5 months, BoilerUp89 finally talks about March Madness

Florida Atlantic v Memphis Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Last season Purdue Boilermakers basketball received their first #1 seed in the NCAA tournament since 1996. They lost. Why did this happen? What can you do to prevent Purdue from repeating their dismal NCAA tournament performances?

Tournament woes are nothing new to Matt Painter. Losses to Virginia Commonwealth, Little Rock, and North Texas all haunt years later. But the past two seasons have seen Purdue lose to a 15 seed and a 16 seed. Is this because Matt Painter is a terrible head coach? Or has the playbook for beating Purdue the past two seasons been obvious both years and the opponents just went out and executed the obvious plan? Or is there something else entirely going on? Does a bigger issue lurk within the NCAA or the Purdue basketball program?

Today we finally rip off the band aid and take a look at the ghastly wound that is the loss to Fairleigh Dickinson to see if we can learn anything.

The Game

Purdue lost 58-63. Despite Zach Edey’s 21 points, the team shot 19.2% from three and had 16 turnovers.

What Happened?

As I’ve tried to wrap my head around what happened last March, I’ve found a variety of explanations that fall within three distinct categories. For simplicity’s sake, we will call these categories “Apologists”, “Style of play”, and “Other”. Which one you happen to believe says a lot about you as a person, but I’ll explain each of them and what parts of them I think have merit.


The apologists school of thought would tell you that Purdue’s loss was the culmination of a bunch of things but that zero percent of the blame lies on the coaching staff. A mixture of bad timing, poor luck, and mistreatment by the NCAA have combined to cause Purdue this temporary embarrassment. Purdue will certainly be able to make it over the hump next season though and finally make the Final Four for the first time since 1980. What do the apologists blame for the loss?

Terrible Basketballs

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Furman vs Virginia
These basketballs are terrible
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that is absolutely astonishing to me is that in the year 2023, the NCAA has not standardized the ball that is used in college basketball games. Nike schools use Nike balls at their home games. Adidas schools use Adidas, Wilson, or Spalding (the Adidas ball is apparently junk). Under Armor schools use... you know what I don’t actually care. The point is that a variety of balls are used and they have different textures changing the release of your shot.

Then we get to the postseason and we use the Wilson Evo NXT game ball. This ball became being used for the NCAA tournaments in 2022 and is under contract through the 2028 tournament, so get used to looking at these ugly things.

You may be thinking to yourself, surely the ball used doesn’t matter that much, but the NCAA themselves will tell you that the Wilson ball used in their tournament has an extra layer of grip. What’s more, the Wilson balls used in the tournament have been brand new - that is to say not broken in at all.

Now I can’t find stats for the entirety of the last two tournaments. For one thing, nobody reads college basketball articles published after the national championship game and therefore nobody writes them. For another, I do not own my own college basketball database like Ken Pomeroy. What I can find are stats from after the Elite 8 and before the Final Four for each of the last two tournaments and a bunch of complaints.

From the 2022 tournament stats before the Final Four, the effective field goal percentage was 34th (out of 35 tournaments since the three point line was introduced). The 3 point percentage was just 31.5% - good for 35th out of the 35 tournaments since the three point line was introduced. The 2023 tournament stats from before the Final Four, the number was still a paltry 31.9%. And because I’d like to give credit to those who actually pulled together stats, here’s how teams stacked up versus the version of themselves in the regular season:

It’s not just the bright lights of the postseason either. In 2021 - the year before the ball change, teams shot 33.7% from behind the arc in the tournament. We’ve seen a noticeable decrease in performance in the 2022 and 2023 tournaments. Complaints that the balls were over inflated and stickier have been common as were calls from across college basketball to bring back the old balls. Wilson (and the NCAA) have ignored all these complaints.

If you are looking for other tournaments using the maligned Wilson ball with odd results, look no further than the 2023 Big Ten tournament. Upsets could be found everywhere. Despite that Purdue still won that tournament, so maybe the ball isn’t entirely to blame?

For Purdue in particular, there was a particularly large split between basketball brands last year. Despite the team practicing with all the different types of brands, you will note that four of Purdue’s six losses came with non-Nike basketballs (at Indiana, at Northwestern, at Maryland, Fairleigh Dickinson). You’ll also note that their non-conference tournament that got them so much attention and was the meat of the tournament resume (because let’s face it the B1G was awful last year) was a Nike sponsored tournament that used Nike basketballs. The stats speak for themselves.

I’ve got one thing to say to those blaming the basketball though. While the balls probably didn’t help, and Purdue’s 19.2% 3 point shooting against Fairleigh Dickinson was terrible that’s not why they lost. Purdue had all season to practice with these basketballs and there were other issues at play in the tournament loss.

Freshman guards

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 13 Nebraska at Purdue Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Purdue started two freshman guards last season. It’s not a secret that they wore down as the physicality of the Big Ten season took its toll. Fletcher Loyer went in an extended shooting slump about the middle of January.

Sure, Purdue wasn’t supposed to be that good last season. Well, they might have been with a junior Jaden Ivey, but with Ivey off in the NBA nobody thought Purdue was a legitimate contender heading into the season. The argument goes that it was supposed to be a season for developing the guards and wings for Edey’s senior year and they could afford to play through mistakes.

Here’s the thing though. last year’s team was really good. They had a national player of the year and a 1 seed. While I admire Matt Painter’s commitment to his guys, I appreciate what David Jenkins brought to the program, and acknowledge that Purdue was literally outbid by Miami Florida, a veteran guard that was strong with the basketball would have been really useful this past March. Miami Florida made their run behind the guard (Nijel Pack) Painter was targeting. Painter needed to have backup plans there.

Instead we had the two starting freshman guards combine for 10 turnovers and 6 of 20 shooting in 61 minutes of play. Smith and Loyer will learn and grow from the experience and none of this should be taken as a criticism of them. Both did a great job for freshman and will do even better moving forward, but Painter put them in a tough spot.

Over ranked

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

If we are being honest among friends (and enemies), Purdue should not have been a 1 seed last year based on their talent level. Yes, they were good. They were not top 4 team in the country good. Their wins came against down Duke and Gonzaga programs that misplayed Zach Edey and an early season home victory over Marquette. Purdue then ran through an awful Big Ten. No use crying about it, but the Big Ten was not good last year.

This resulted in an inflated record and resume for the Boilermakers that resulted in them being over seeded. The only reason anybody was giving them a chance to make a Final Four was because their region was so weak - the lowest seed to make the Final Four came out of their region if you need further proof that the region was bad. If 2 seeded Purdue had lost, yes it would have stung, but it would not be the first comment of all our rival fans on every semi-Purdue related article or conversation.

Style of Play

This group is perhaps best represented by many of the contributors to the Big Ten basketball discussion around Off Tackle Empire. The argument goes that the brand of basketball that the Big Ten plays (and Purdue is the leading example of) is not conducive to a deep NCAA tournament run. That star guards and not star post players are needed to make a Final Four.

Center heavy offense

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Purdue has run a center heavy offense for the past decade with giants such as AJ Hammons, Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas, Trevion Williams, and now Zach Edey pummeling opponents into submission. It’s effective, wins Purdue a lot of games, and then flops in the postseason. The year Purdue’s offense centered around a guard (2019), Purdue made a deep tournament run to the Elite 8.

There are those who would argue that a post heavy offense cannot win in the tournament and I can see the argument. But let’s not act like Zach Edey didn’t get his in the loss to Fairleigh Dickinson. He had 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the field, 15 rebounds and just 2 turnovers. Purdue did not lose in March because of their center heavy offense. They lost because the other options of the roster combined for 12-42 from the field. And let’s not pretend that the 2017 (Kansas), 2021 (North Texas), or 2022 (St. Peters) teams lost because of their offense. They lost because of their defense getting exposed as too slow or easily bullied.

Would it be easier to recruit higher caliber wings and guards without a center heavy offense? Probably. Can Purdue land those types of players in the recruiting landscape? Maybe occasionally, although they are typically underrated guys when they arrive on campus (see Jaden Ivey, Carsen Edwards).

Does Purdue need more options than just shots by the center at the rim and open three pointers? Do they need something else that they can fall back on when the jumpers aren’t falling? Yes. Which leads me to my next point.

Athleticism Needed

Syndication: Journal-Courier
More athleticism please
Noe Padilla/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Purdue needs more athletic guards and wings on the roster. When it comes to breaking the press or having someone who can break down defenders on the dribble, athleticism goes a long way. Being able to run a pick and roll with an athletic guard driving downhill to get an easy bucket is a very useful tool to have in your back pocket. Last year’s Purdue team did not have any of these guys on the active roster.

Matt Painter himself describes it as needing more quickness. These are small changes to Purdue’s offense but give you another dimension when the base offense isn’t getting it done. When shots aren’t falling, you can go get an easy bucket at the rim with something other than a post feed. You can push the ball up the court in transition more and attack the defense off the dribble.

That doesn’t mean Purdue needs a wholesale change away from their identity as a basketball program (after all Purdue was a very good team last year). But the flexibility of their program and ability to adapt when things aren’t going their way improves when there are other options available.

It’s one thing to say that players need to make wide open shots (and Purdue missed an awful lot of wide open threes), but sometimes the players are having a rough outing. Sometimes the pressure of the moment gets to be too much. Or the basketballs suck. Or whatever. In those instances, you need to have an athletic guard or wing or two that can create for themselves. Because right now Purdue has an offense that is great when it works. But everyone knows how to best counter it. Clog the lane, hope Purdue misses threes, press the guards, and play physical defense. It’s not a secret how to play defense against Purdue. The fact that only a few Big Ten teams took advantage of it either means all the rest of the Big Ten coaches are idiots (quite possibly a few but unlikely for the group as a whole) or that while being effective most of the time, Purdue offense is highly dependent on their three point shooting percentage any given night and that can vary wildly from one game to the next.


We’ve now crossed over into... the Twilight Zone.

Do curses exist? Have the consequences of my own actions hurt the team? Most sports fans are superstitious. Do Purdue fans have any right to be? Or are there even bigger issues at play behind Purdue’s last two post season losses.

Virginia Curse Transferred

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte

Most of us laughed when the Virginia Cavaliers became the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed in the 2018 tournament. How funny it was. Hahaha.

Could their program ever recover from such a embarrassment? Apparently, yes since they won the tournament the following year.

But what if Virginia passed that trauma and curse onto Purdue when they beat the Boilermakers in the following year’s Elite 8 game? Does that mean Purdue will win it all this upcoming season and whomever they beat in the Elite 8 this next season will lose to a 16 seed in 2028? Are we destined to see this story play out again and again?

BoilerUp89 Is A Moron

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Joseph Cress/For the Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

Back on Selection Sunday 2023, I was of course active on reddit’s college basketball subreddit talking about the upcoming tournament. Considering my love of college basketball, this should not shock you. When Purdue received a 1 seed, I was delighted. The region as a whole looked fairly weak as an added bonus. Things were finally looking up.

Then it happened. Some prankster on reddit asked whether Purdue fans would take a loss to a 16 seed if it meant winning the national championship the following year. I responded “Deal. No takebacks.” While I’m sure I’ll be happy with the deal as a whole following Purdue’s national championship next season, I’m not entirely sure I thought it would go into effect.

New Jersey

Lotter Map of Pennsylvania
Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images Images

Sharp minded folks around the world may have noticed that Purdue has lost just two men’s basketball games to non-Big Ten opponents the past two seasons and that both schools were from New Jersey. That’s right. After going undefeated in the non-conference slate of the regular season each of the last two years, Purdue has fallen in the NCAA tournament to schools from the state of New Jersey.

You may have also noticed that Rutgers basketball (also from New Jersey, not New York as you may have been led to believe) has defeated #1 ranked Purdue twice in the past two years. Or that Purdue football has never beaten Rutgers football. What do we make of this? Is this all a big coincidence? Or is something more sinister afoot?

If I was to ask you what one thing do you most associate the state of New Jersey with, what is you answer? Of course, the answer is the mafia. We’ve all seen The Sopranos.

As we also all know, point shaving has a long history in college basketball and some suspect that the mafia was involved in the 1950s City College of New York scandal. Is it possible that the mafia has been involved in Purdue’s last two NCAA tournament losses by bribing the refs?

Well, to be honest I think this incredibly unlikely. It’s more likely a bit of the style of play thing plus a lack of speed on the roster along with bad basketballs and a curse passed on from Virginia. But just to be on the safe side, today I ask the readers of this fine sports blog for their assistance.

I ask that all readers of Off Tackle Empire join me in asking the NCAA to ban the state of New Jersey from participating in NCAA sanctioned events. This means an end to St. Peters, Fairleigh Dickinson, Seton Hall, and Rutgers athletics. No longer will you, the good Big Ten fans of OTE, be subjected to watching Rutgers athletics in any sporting event.

Oh and in case you are worried about losing the New York media market, don’t be. We will simply replace Rutgers with Notre Dame. They have more fans in New York anyway.

Is it likely that we put an end to mafia involvement in the NCAA basketball tournament? No, because it isn’t likely that there is any involvement to begin with. But on the off chance there is, wouldn’t you be happier knowing that New Jersey couldn’t participate in NCAA athletics? That Rutgers was no longer part of the Big Ten? I know I would be.


Should New Jersey be banned from participating in NCAA athletics?

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    (67 votes)
  • 30%
    (30 votes)
97 votes total Vote Now


Purdue loss to FDU was primarily due to?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Style of play
    (21 votes)
  • 6%
    The terrible Wilson balls
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    (3 votes)
  • 21%
    Freshman guards
    (27 votes)
  • 34%
    Lack of athleticism on the roster
    (43 votes)
  • 17%
    (21 votes)
123 votes total Vote Now