Evolution of Matt Painter: Most malleable coach in college basketball
The second installment of our memorable moments series features Purdue.
The Boilermakers played two of the best games of last year’s tournament, and they exemplified just how malleable Matt Painter’s coaching is, and just how much that matters heading into next season.
RELATED: Looking back at Virginia’s title run
This is recency bias at it’s very finest, I can fully admit that, but I find it very hard to believe that you can find an example of a more heart-wrenching roller coaster ride of emotions than what Purdue fans experienced in Louisville during the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2019.
Let’s start with that Sweet 16 game against Tennessee. Purdue blew a 17-point second half lead before Ryan Cline made four straight threes in the final six minutes to put the Boilermakers in a position where a controversial foul sent Carsen Edwards to the free throw line. He made two of three to force overtime, where Purdue pulled away. After putting the Volunteers to bed, Matt Painter’s boys advanced to the Elite Eight to face Virginia, owners of the nation’s best defense, where Edwards went nuts, scoring 24 of his 42 points - and hitting six of his ten threes - in the final 13 minutes before a missed box out and this heads up play from Virginia’s Kihei Clark forced overtime and, eventually, cost the Boilermakers a trip to their first Final Four in 39 years:
My fingernails and voice were gone by the time Tony Bennett and Virginia officially advanced to the Final Four, and all I had on the line was a couple of bets.
(For the record, I took Tennessee in the Sweet 16 and Purdue in the Elite Eight. I lost both bets.)
But beyond my degeneracy, both of these games had something else in common - a Purdue player going absolutely bonkers to close out the game.
Against Tennessee, Cline scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, hitting four straight threes in a five minute stretch to get the game to the extra period. Cline didn’t even end up as Purdue’s leading scorer on that night. Edwards, who had 29 points and fired up 14 threes, was. Those 29 points came in between back-to-back 42 point outbursts by the 33rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. In total, Edwards found a way to get up 61 threes in four NCAA tournament games. Cline was able to get off 34 threes in four games, and those two stats serve as a pretty fair summation of what Purdue basketball was during the 2018-19 season.
Purdue attempted 977 threes last year. Since 2010, only four high major teams have shot more threes in a single season than Purdue did last year - Villanova in each of the last two seasons, Auburn in 2018-19 and Michigan in 2017-18; the latter played in an NCAA record 41 games that season and averaged 2.5 fewer threes attempted per game than Purdue did this past season. The Boilermakers set a record for the most threes attempted in a Big Ten season with 501.
Edwards and Cline were the two guys that led the way. They took 646 threes combined last year, which is two-thirds of their team total. Edwards led the Big Ten in three-pointers attempted during league play. Cline finished second. Combined, they shot more threes - 327 in total - than Minnesota’s entire team.
And that’s fascinating to me.
Because just four years ago, the Boilermakers finished 12th in the Big Ten in three pointers attempted with just 332 as a team. That season, the first in a four-year stretch where Purdue has been arguably the best program in the Big Ten, 24.8 percent of Purdue’s offense came via post-ups.
For the record, that number is insane.
Oral Roberts finished second nationally in that stat in 2016, finishing with just over 18 percent of their offense coming via post-ups. Since the 2007-08 season - which is as far back as I’m willing to trust Synergy’s data - only three teams have finished the season running more than 21 percent of their through the post: Purdue in 2015-16, Purdue in 2016-17 and Stanford in 2007-08, the final year that the Lopez twins were in Palo Alto.
But there’s more.
This past season, just 7.4 percent of Purdue’s offense came via post-ups. In 2011-12, Robbie Hummel’s final season with the program, that number was just 2.9 percent.
In the span of seven years, Matt Painter went from running a program that played Hummel, a 6-foot-8 small forward, at the five to one that paired Caleb Swanigan with Isaac Haas to one that rode Edwards going full YOLO to within a Mamadi Diakite buzzer-beater of the Final Four.
That is not normal.
And it should tell you all you need to know about the man running things in West Lafayette.
Robbie Hummel remembers it like it was yesterday.
It’s early December in 2011, just nine games into his senior season, and Purdue is fresh off of blowing a 19-point second half lead in a loss in Cincinnati to No. 11 Xavier. He’s with the rest of his team in the film room, watching as Painter is going over everything that went wrong on that Saturday in the Cintas Center. When you blow a 19-point lead in less than 11 minutes, a lot went wrong.
Hummel’s not looking forward to it. He scored 17 points, but it took him 21 shots to get there. He didn’t play great, but there is one shot in particular that he’s dreading. He knows it’s going to be in the edit that Painter shows. With more than 20 seconds left on the shot clock, he waves off not one but two different Purdue guards. He squares up Xavier’s Travis Taylor. He goes between his legs, he crosses over, he puts the ball back between his legs, takes one dribble to get into a rhythm and lets loose with a 24-foot three that hits nothing but air.
It’s not even close.
When it shows up on the screen, he knows what’s coming.
“Robbie,” Painter says, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “that’s the worst f***ing shot in the history of basketball.”
And Painter is right.
The announcers on the broadcast point out how bad the shot is. His teammates at the time know it’s an awful shot. Watching the clip now, Hummel says it’s “just a horrific possession and shot,” laughing with the benefit of hindsight.
I’m telling you that story because it’s funny. Anyone that knows Painter has a story like that, he’s just that kind of a guy. Maybe one day I’ll share the one I heard about the time Pat Knight hosted him on a recruiting visit at Indiana, but first I’ll need to iron out what’s fact, what’s legend and what is forever off the record. Again, that’s the kind of guy he is.
But it also serves to drive home a point, one that I kept hearing from people is what makes Painter so damn good as a coach: His ability to identify what, specifically, his players can do great, how to put them in a position to take advantage of those skills and - this is the important part - convincing them that they need to fully understand their own scouting report and play within their own abilities.
“Everybody looks at ‘talent,’” Painter told me last month, “but talent is overrated if someone is not going to play within the limits of what they can and cannot do. The more guys embrace that, the more productive they can be.”
And, in turn, the better the team can be.
The story I told you?
It’s the perfect example of this.
As a senior, Hummel was an All-American. As a junior, before suffering a pair of torn ACLs within the span of nine months, he averaged 15.7 points for a team that was one of the five best in America. As a senior two years later, he averaged 16.4 points before becoming a second round pick. He was a damn good college player, one of the best to ever set foot in Mackey Arena.
And that shot?
The worst f***ing shot in the history of basketball?
It looks an awful lot like these, doesn’t it?
Ask guys that have played for Painter about him, and they’ll tell you that he is very much a believer in the idea of confidence. He doesn’t want his players to be thinking when they are on the floor. If they have a chance to make a play or take a shot, he wants them to let it fly without being concerned that they’ll get yanked if they miss. But that comes with the caveat that his guys understand that what is a good shot for them differs from what is a good shot for him.
Edwards was the best in the country at what he did last season. He’ll spend a decade playing in the NBA specifically because of his ability to score, to make tough, deep, contested shots. “He’s got the juice,” Painter said. Likewise, Cline was one of the Big Ten’s very best shooters, and when he gets into the kind of rhythm that he was in against Tennessee, Painter is going to let him go. He has the ability to make those shots.
Hummel, as good as he was, is not a guy you want going 1-on-1 35 feet from the rim and settling for a contested, pull-up three. That’s not his game, but it is a good way to blow a 19-point lead on the road.
Which brings me back to the top.
In 2015-16, Purdue laid claim to the biggest and strongest frontline you’re ever going to see. They started 6-foot-9, 250 pound Caleb Swanigan at the four alongside either A.J. Hammons - who stood 7-foot, 250 pounds - or Isaac Haas - who checked in at 7-foot-2, 282 pounds. The following season, after Hammons graduated, Swanigan and Haas started together.
In 2017-18, Purdue ran out a lineup that looked different but played the same. Instead of using lineups predominantly featuring a pair of posts playing together, the Boilermakers put four perimeter players around Haas. That season, “only” 16 percent of their offense came via post-ups, which was sixth nationally.
“We had some really good big guys,” Greg Gary, who ran Purdue’s offense for the last four seasons, said. “That was our advantage. Our guards would get mad because we threw it in so much.”
The advantage for the Boilermakers lay in the fact that they forced the defense into making a decision. There were few, if any, players in the college ranks that were capable of slowing down any of those three Purdue bigs 1-on-1 in the post. If they got the ball where they wanted it, they were going to score. They were probably going to draw a foul. They would get your frontline into all kinds of foul trouble. You had to double, but doing so meant leaving someone that was a very good three-point shooter, because every perimeter player on the Purdue roster in recent seasons was a good three-point shooter.
Over the course of the last four seasons, even with a roster that featured the best post-up play in the country in three of those four seasons, Purdue has shot 36.7 percent, 40.2 percent, 42 percent and 37.4 percent from three. At worst, they were in the 80th percentile nationally from beyond the arc.
There is no better example of this than in 2017-18. That was the best offensive team Painter has ever had. They were the second most efficient offense in the country that season, trailing only national champion Villanova, who set a KenPom era record for efficiency that season. Your choice was either allowing Haas - who shot 61.7 percent from the floor, drew seven fouls per 40 minutes and made better than 75 percent of his free throws - to go 1-on-1, or you double-teamed him by leaving one of Carsen Edwards (40.6% 3PT), Vincent Edwards (39.8% 3PT), Dakota Mathias (46.6% 3PT), Ryan Cline (39.6% 3PT) or P.J. Thompson (44.1% 3PT).
So you tell me.
How do you stop that?
Everything changed this past season.
Matt Haarms took over as the starting center. He may be 7-foot-3, but he is not the post presence of his predecessors. Trevion Williams is going to be good, but he was a 280 pound freshman that just wasn’t ready. What that meant was that the Purdue coaching staff had to figure out something different.
Purdue has one of the biggest playbooks in college basketball.
Painter estimates that they have roughly 50 plays, but each one of those plays can be initiated from multiple different looks and they all have counters to the counters that are countering a counter.
“We would get a stapled booklet with all the plays every year during preseason,” Cline said, adding that often times offseason pick-up games would double as playbook study halls, because “if you don’t know the plays, you don’t play.
“There’s so many different play calls, five word sentences where one word changes [the play].”
Edwards used to joke with Gary that the play book “was my toughest class at Purdue.”
As a result, so much of Purdue’s success on the offensive end of the floor comes down to execution and deception. They don’t win off of raw talent. They win because the players excel at doing what the coaching staff asks them to do, and the coaching staff excels at figuring out exactly where they have an edge.
From 2015-2017, the answer was pounding the ball into the paint as much as humanly possible. When every post touch turns into David vs. Goliath, and you have Goliath, you give him the rock.
In 2017-18, it was forcing defenses to choose between guarding Mr. Incredible with one guy or playing 4-on-3 against four of the best shooters you’ll find in the college ranks.
This past season, the coaching staff figured out that there were three things they could build an offense around:
1. Edwards’ speed. He is not only one of the fastest players on any basketball court he steps foot on, he’s an absolute nightmare to chase around screens because he’s small, he’s compact, he can maneuver around screens better than anyone chasing him and he’s capable of rising up and drilling a catch-and-shoot three at top speed, especially when running to his left.
2. Haarms’ mobility. He can really move for a man his size. He can also handle the ball, he thrives in dribble-handoff actions and he has an innate understanding of when he can slip a screen and get a free run at the rim.
3. Cline’s awkward release. He has something of a slingshot motion that he fires from behind his head with a natural fade. That makes it very difficult to contest, especially when he is sprinting around screens to his right. He also proved himself an excellent passer and decision-maker, capable of hitting a big man rolling to the rim.
The result was an offense that, quite literally, turned into Edwards and Cline running circles around the court.
“We just had so much more movement because of not having a low post guy down there,” Gary said. “When you throw it to a guy in the post it gets stagnant. You try to get the big guy as much space as possible. We weren’t going to overpower anybody, so we had to have movement to occupy both sides of the floor.”
Imagine trying to guard this.
Imagine chasing Carsen Edwards off of a triple-screen. Imagine being a center 22 feet from the rim knowing that if you don’t help, Ryan Cline might bang a three in your face, but if you do help, Matt Haarms will slip the screen and find himself all alone in the paint without anyone within 10 feet of him.
And now imagine doing all of that knowing that one word is all it takes to change what action Purdue will be looking for, or that they can run the same thing out of three different looks.
Here’s the perfect example. Purdue ran the same action - a dribble-handoff in the middle of the floor that acts as a double-pindown for a shooter - 10 times in the Tennessee game. Look at how many different options they have, and how many ways they can get into it:
Perhaps the most frustrating part, at least if you are a member of that Purdue coaching staff, is that you’re going back to the drawing board next year.
Edwards is gone. Cline is gone. Gary is gone, too. That’s a huge chunk of their offense, the two guys they built the way they played around, not to mention the guy that was in charge of building it. What’s left is ... well, it’s different.
But it’s also familiar.
Of Purdue’s five best players next season, there’s a reasonable argument to make that four of them will be bigs - Haarms, Williams, Aaron Wheeler and Evan Boudreaux - and the fifth will be a guard - Nojel Eastern - that has shot 3-for-13 from three in two years.
Bringing in Jahaad Proctor from High Point, a grad transfer lead guard, will help, and sophomore guards Sasha Stefanovic and Eric Hunter did have their moments last season. Frankly, Painter seems to like what he has in his program, and their new offensive coordinator - Micah Shrewsberry - has already spent time on Purdue’s staff, in between spending time with Brad Stevens at Butler and in Boston.
They’re in good hands.
“There’s a really big sophomore jump with talented guys,” he said, “and we had four freshmen come off the bench that will now be sophomores. I think all four of them will have good years, and Nojel and Matt will be able to expand what they’re doing.
“I think the one think we have to make sure is that we don’t try to make anyone Carsen or Caleb. Allow guys to be the best version of themselves and play through that.”
It’s Painter’s job to figure out what, exactly, “the best version of themselves” is.