Behind the scenes as Purdue completes its ‘do-over’ in NCAA Tournament first round

INDIANAPOLIS – At halftime of Wednesday’s First Four game between Montana State and Grambling, producers flashed the following tweet:

The CBS studio crew had a good chuckle over it, and host Adam Lefkoe asked, “How do we think Purdue is feeling right now?”

Inside Monument Hall, a sublevel ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Indianapolis, Purdue was feeling just fine. The men’s basketball staff and a handful of players were scattered among roundtables, watching the play-in game on a big screen. They saw the tweet, heard the chuckles. They stared stoically ahead, saying nothing. They have been the butt of the joke for 370 days. They’ve owned it, sat in it, stewed in it. They can’t undo it. “But,’’ as Ethan Morton said a few days earlier after a practice at Mackey Arena, “there aren’t many times in your life you get a do-over.’’

The do-over is now done, a 78-50 pasting of 16th-seeded Grambling State on Friday that perhaps took a little longer to get rolling than some would have liked, but nonetheless rid the Boilers of one demon. There are still more to come; Purdue is not just guilty of losing to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson last year, but a host of March offenses. But this was, if not the most important game on the hierarchy — that’s down the road on the calendar, in the regional final — the most damning crime to pardon. The FDU loss was served up as everything that is wrong with Purdue. Much like Virginia, after its first-round loss to UMBC, the Boilers’ very way of doing business was questioned.

It would be a lie to say they didn’t entertain those questions at least briefly; it is the sort of loss that makes you search your soul for answers. But Matt Painter held strong in his belief that losing to Fairleigh Dickinson was not a sign of systemic failure. More than once he told his team that in a 10-game series against the Black Knights, the Boilers would win nine.

That, however, should not be misinterpreted. Purdue maybe didn’t make wholesale changes; but that doesn’t mean they ignored the loss altogether. You take your time, you lick your wounds and then you go get it right,’’ says Elliott Bloom, Purdue’s director of basketball operations. “We did things this year that we’ve never done before. Was that a reaction to what happened? Probably. There was an unspoken chip but also just a sense of, we’re going to get this right.’’

Purdue walks off the floor after losing to Fairleigh Dickinson last year. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

P.J. Thompson and Sasha Stefanovic sit in Thompson’s office, staring at game film. It is 10 a.m. on Tuesday, two days after Selection Sunday. They’ve already watched eight Montana State games; they are working on the same for Grambling. Thompson is wearing his glasses to ward off the invariable headaches from staring at a computer screen. “Otherwise I’m pounding Excedrin, or looking for a Coke from McDonald’s,” he says.

Thompson is the latest Boiler offensive savant. A former Boilermaker point guard, he was hired in 2018 as a graduate assistant and though by title is the director of player development, he’s really the Boilermakers’ offensive coordinator. Painter long ago divvied up his staff’s duties to mimic a football squad and has turned over the reins of an offense that has ranked in KenPom’s top 50 for nine consecutive years to a 28-year-old. The first time Painter turned to him in a huddle and said, ‘What ya got?’ Thompson nearly jumped. “I was like, ‘Oh s—, he really means it,’” Thompson says. When he’s not challenging players to 3-point shooting contests (in which he usually trash-talks his way to victory) Thompson studies Purdue film with the dedication of a scientist, probing the replays for tweaks he can make to the nearly 200 offensive sets the Boilers run.

Thompson is explaining that, though he waited a little while, he forced himself to watch the FDU film when Painter pokes his head in his office. Painter does this a lot, wandering around like an old office watercooler-haunter in search of conversation. He’s holding an old Boston Celtics program that a Purdue professor gave to him; it’s pristine, and Painter, who likes basketball history nearly as much as he loves basketball stories, wants to show it off.

He asks what everyone is talking about, and when he’s told it’s about FDU, Painter just nods his head. “Someone put all of their makes online the other day,’’ he says. “I only vomited in my mouth three times. But, hey, I’ve got Scope in the house.”

Rueful as they might be, at least the laughs come now. It took a long time to get here. “I think the thing people don’t understand,” Braden Smith says, “it’s not like we tried to lose.” Smith is sitting in the back bowels of Mackey Arena, here to shoot video for Senior Night. He’s rolled in on a motorbike concoction that he, Myles Colvin, Lance Jones and Carson Barrett received as part of an NIL deal. It gets up to 25 miles per hour and causes a few heads to turn when the quartet speed around town together, their last names emblazoned on the battery packs.

Smith is a finalist for the Cousy Award, given to the nation’s best point guard, and is averaging 12.5 points, 7.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game. At the end of last year, Painter asked an outside crew to run some analytics on his rising sophomore, and then told Smith’s father, Dustin, to make sure his son spent more time this summer getting comfortable as a shooting, and not just passing, point guard. The result is a player who added three points per game to his scoring total, and increased his 3-point shooting by 7 percent.

Against FDU, Smith shot 2 of 10, missed five of the six 3s he tried, coughed up seven turnovers and collapsed into his parents upon entering the lobby of the Hyatt after returning from the arena. Smith’s forehead fell somewhere in the crease created between Dustin and Ginny’s shoulders. “He came over to us and sobbed. That’s when we knew this was real,” Dustin says. “Like this actually happened.”

The Smiths realized the enormity of it all, not just their own gutting disappointment but the agony and anger among Purdue fans everywhere, an hour later. As the family walked through Columbus in a daze looking for a late bite, a fan — or at least a man wearing Purdue gear — ran over and started screaming. “He’s yelling at me, ‘Your son is this and that,’ and then he knocked my hat off,”’ Dustin says. “He wanted to fight me. I remember Braden saying, ‘Oh, my God, they hate me.”

It will not earn a spot in celluloid history, alongside Laettner’s shot or Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater, but tiny FDU’s felling of mighty Purdue is one of those NCAA Tournament moments that people remember what bar they were in, who they were with, how they reacted.

Southern Illinois, before he became a transfer portal Boiler himself, Lance Jones watched it in his Carbondale apartment. “I just remember thinking, ‘Damn! They just lost to a 16-seed,’” Jones says.

“What do I remember from that game?” Mason Gillis asks. “That I was 3 for 10 and 1 for 7 from 3. That’s what I remember.”

The next morning, the Boilers left in what felt like a funeral procession, assistant coach Terry Johnson trailing the team bus with his wife, Kristen, and their three boys. “Nah, no one spoke,’’ Johnson says. “Three hours, no one spoke.’’ Silence accompanied the Smiths back to Westfield, Ind., and found its way to Zach Edey, too. The big man is fairly certain he didn’t say a word to anyone until he rolled back on campus. Even then, he merely shut himself off in his house. Gillis hopped a flight to Puerto Rico, the getaway so spontaneous he didn’t even bother to tell his mother where he was going (when a Purdue fan spotted Gillis during his layover in Florida and posted a picture of the two of them, a rather irate Tammy McCall phoned her son asking where exactly he was).

Painter fielded a long text from Tony Bennett. The only person capable of offering advice, the Virginia coach — and first victim in history of a 16-over-1 upset — had himself just suffered yet another humbling defeat, losing to Furman. “I’m thinking he ought to be wallowing in his own self-pity,’’ Painter says, “and here he is, thinking of me.’’ He eventually retreated to his house on Lake Freeman, hitching the massive grill he had specially made in Cincinnati to a trailer to lose himself for a few days. He followed his beloved Cubs, read a few books. Mostly he waited.

June finally came, and the players returned for summer work. That’s when the Boilers stopped thinking about what happened and started concentrating on how to fix it.

Painter doesn’t do things halfway. His brain actively seeks out wormholes that he can lose himself in. On the way to and from Marian University for a Thursday practice this week, he discussed George Gervin’s point totals, sang a War song from memory and chatted about who was and wasn’t buried at the city’s biggest cemetery.

So the idea of him digging into the weeds on what made his Boilers tick — and didn’t — is hardly far-fetched. This is how deep the staff went: They looked at their own game film, researching opponents they fared well against and those they didn’t. Why did the Boilers have such success against Michigan State (6-1 in the same span) and struggle against Rutgers (2-5 since 2020 before this year)? They stretched that to other teams in the league. What did Iowa do against Rutgers that Purdue didn’t?

The numbers spit out a simple, maybe even obvious explanation. The whiteboard spanning an entire wall of Painter’s office looks like the scrawlings of a mad scientist, with diagrammed plays covering the majority of the space. Tucked up in the right-hand corner sits a pair of numbers: 157-15; 6-49. The first is the Boilers’ record under Painter when they outrebound a team and have fewer turnovers; the second is when they don’t. That isn’t always easy to fix; it is, however, easy to explain. Against FDU, the wildly undersized Black Knights had no chance on the boards, beaten by nine. But Purdue coughed up the ball 16 times to FDU’s nine.

“Rebound and take care of the ball,” Painter says. “Sometimes it is really that simple.”

Next, Painter looked at his team’s shooting. A year ago, Purdue ranked 275th in 3-point percentage. “I liked the guys who were shooting it last year,’’ Painter says. “They just weren’t shooting it very well.’’ Midway through every single Boilers practice, Painter shouts, “Five-minute 3 drill, let’s go.” It is pretty self-explanatory — for five minutes, the Boilermakers shoot 3s and nothing but 3s. The result: Purdue is now second nationally in 3-point shooting percentage.

Then came the hard part. Last year the Boilers went 3-4 in February. “Leaking oil,” assistant coach Paul Lusk says. They also were reliant on two freshmen guards in Smith and Fletcher Loyer who averaged 35 minutes per game. The answers came again in the numbers — but this time on the ones supplied by strength coach Jason Kaboxx, who tracks the players’ load management. The assistants gently suggested that Painter heed those stats, too, and ease back on practice. It was a big ask. Painter is cut from the Gene Keady cloth, and the old school says you go long and go hard. Purdue’s practices are now short and sweet, rarely stretching beyond 90 minutes and filled more with drills than live five-on-five action. “I’m shocked, absolutely shocked,” says Lusk, who is in his second go-round as Painter’s assistant. “When we started, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. He’s actually doing it.”

The result: Purdue went 6-1 this February. “Efficient is the right word,’’ forward Trey Kaufman-Renn says. “We’re still getting everything in, but not everything is going up and down. It’s better for your body, and better for your mind, and when your mind feels good, you feel good. It definitely helped.”

The final tweak required no research; Lusk dropped a DM into Lance Jones’ Twitter after the Saluki guard entered the transfer portal. The two exchanged numbers, Jones took a visit and committed on the spot. The high-energy yapper, who never met a room he couldn’t own, is a defensive spitfire who brought the relentless toughness the backcourt needed. Jones was brazen enough to showcase his personality but smart enough to pack his humility. He worked endlessly with Thompson to nail down the endless play calls — Wally Pop Drizzle ranks as a favorite — and still willingly takes direction.

On Tuesday, as Smith rested his knee and didn’t practice, the sophomore signaled to the grad transfer to step back a few places in order to be in the right spot for a play. Jones moved, and then looked back at Smith to make sure he did the right thing. “You know what? It was a big jump,” Jones says of moving from Southern Illinois, where nobody blinked when he walked across campus to Purdue, where people whisper to each other while he’s grabbing lunch at Potbellies, trying to work up the nerve to ask for a picture. “Yeah, I was nervous. It was a big jump,” he says. “But I bet on myself. That’s all you can do. Bet on yourself.”

The bet has certainly paid off. Jones is third in minutes, third in scoring and has a chance at a national title. That, however, is also why on Wednesday night, as the Boilers gather after Grambling mounted a furious charge to beat Montana State, Jones looks over at Thompson. “I’m nervous,” he says. He, along with freshmen Cam Heide and Myles Colvin, are the only guys among the 10 regular rotation players who haven’t stepped on the court for an NCAA Tournament game. “Don’t be nervous,” Thompson says. “Get excited.”

Five simple words, and yet probably the best summation of Purdue’s attitude toward its first-round game. Morton is right and wrong about the do-over. The top-seeded Boilers got to play against a 16-seed again. They have a shot to pursue a national championship. It is not, however, an entire win-and-replace. That’s not how this works. In the history of the NCAA Tournament, two No. 1 seeds have lost a first-round game. Purdue is one of them. A team that included a 7-4 center lost to a team that ranked dead last in average height. “The things people say about that game are true,’’ Painter says. “It happened, so there’s no sense in ignoring it.’’

There is, however, also no point in running from it, and so when assistant coach Brandon Brantley concluded a quick player scout minutes after Grambling won that First Four game, he didn’t hold back. “They’re little, but they’re hoopers,’’ he said.

“Now, let’s go knock their f—ing teeth in.”

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Purdue players celebrate the end of Friday’s win over Grambling. (Alex Martin / USA Today)

The men congregated on the sidewalk alongside Market Street. Most wore Purdue gear, though one went fancy with a gold and black blazer. They all had a beer. Having clearly spotted the bus parked at the curb, they ascertained that this would, in fact, be the perfect spot to cheer on their Boilermakers en route to Friday’s first-round game. Cheering, however, was not enough. No, as the players ducked out the side door of the Hilton Hotel and ambled a handful of steps to the bus, the assemblage popped the volume on a portable speaker and provided the Boilers their hype music.

Which is how Purdue loaded onto a bus in the middle of downtown Indianapolis to the strains of “We Ready.”

They exited Gainbridge Fieldhouse much the same, if without the music. They walked happily but not overly emotionally to the locker room, enjoying the standing ovation from the very pro-Purdue crowd, Edey stopping to sign a few autographs before apologizing that he had to leave. The big man, who finished with an absurd 30 points and 21 rebounds, was the last in the locker room, but when he pushed open the door, the place did not erupt.

This was about the do over but it’s never just about the do over. “We don’t look past any game, but we’ve been waiting for this one, to go out and prove people wrong,’’ Smith says. “We’ve worked our butts off. We want to win this game, but we’re here for more. We want a deep run. This is just the beginning.’’

For info on tickets, click here.

(Top photo of Fletcher Loyer: Andy Lyons / Getty Image)

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