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Purdue And Zach Edey Have Defied Expectations Again. Can They Do It In March?

The Purdue Boilermakers had already tasted success when Matt Painter was named head coach of the men’s basketball team 19 years ago. Sure, they weren’t a blue blood like their national-title winning rivals 100 miles to the south, but the Boilermakers had won 1,455 games and 21 Big Ten championships across 107 seasons on the hardwood. Painter knew the standard because he had contributed directly to it: Under Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady, Painter went to the NCAA Tournament three times in his four seasons as a Boilermaker.1

But they weren’t used to this — the considerably higher standard that Painter has set in West Lafayette since taking the helm in 2005. Painter has guided the team to 13 NCAA Tournament appearances and 17 tournament wins over the past 16 seasons,2 averaging 23.5 wins per season and overseeing the six winningest graduating classes in school history. Last month, at the relatively tender age of 52, Painter became the fifth coach in Big Ten history to win at least 400 games. And this season, he lifted Purdue to the top of the AP Poll for just the second time in school history.3

Painter has made a habit out of overperforming his roster talent. Purdue hasn’t fielded a top-20 recruiting class since 2013 but has finished all but one of the past seven seasons ranked in the final AP Poll. This season could be Painter’s masterstroke. Purdue’s 2022 recruiting class ranked No. 38, its lowest mark in five years, but the team has blossomed into a formidable contender with the second shortest national championship odds, according to BetMGM.

Purdue has done a lot with a little

Preseason and postseason rankings for Purdue men’s basketball, 2014-2023

Season Consensus Recruiting Rk. NCAA Tournament Finish AP Preseason AP Final Rank
2023 38 ? NR ?
2022 23 Sweet 16 7 10
2021 34 Round of 64 NR 20
2020 30 N/A* 23 NR
2019 31 Elite Eight 24 13
2018 45 Sweet 16 20 11
2017 50 Sweet 16 15 15
2016 31 Round of 64 23 12
2015 33 Round of 64 NR NR
2014 16 Did not qualify NR NR

*The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sources: On3,

Even the pensive eyes of Purdue Pete didn’t see the standard being met this season. Little was expected of Purdue after it lost four of its six players who started at least 15 games for last season’s Sweet 16 squad, including All-American guard Jaden Ivey, who became the program’s highest NBA draft pick in 28 years. For just the second time in the past eight seasons, Purdue opened the season outside of the AP Top 25. Media members projected Purdue to finish fifth in the Big Ten preseason poll. Instead, the Boilermakers won 22 of their first 23 games to establish the best start in program history and currently hold a 2.5-game lead in the conference standings. Over a 72-hour span in late November, Purdue trounced top-10 opponents Gonzaga and Duke by a combined 37 points. The following Monday, Purdue entered the top five of the AP Poll, where it has remained ever since.

Fans need only look up to understand why. Junior center Zach Edey — who, at 7-foot-4, stands a half-foot taller than the tallest teammates Painter played with in the early 1990s — is the front-runner to become the National Player of the Year, a remarkable evolution for someone who picked up the sport in high school and was the 253rd-ranked player in his recruiting class. “The most unique player in the country,” is how Duke coach Jon Scheyer described Edey after he held Dereck Lively II, the nation’s top-ranked recruit, scoreless over 22 minutes before Lively fouled out. “A hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.” “He’s a moose,” said Gonzaga forward Drew Timme of Edey, who punished the Zags All-American down low.

The Big Maple is on pace to become just the second major-conference player in the past 31 seasons to average at least 22 points and 13 rebounds per game.4 In an era where perimeter-shooting big men are a dime a dozen, Edey has never attempted a shot from beyond the arc and is wholly committed to an around-the-rim role, which allows him to frequently foul out his matchup.5 When not forced to the free-throw line, Edey’s 63 dunks this season are more than any team in the America East, ASUN, Big South, Big West, CAA, Ivy, MAC, NEC, Southland, SWAC and WCC, according to 

But perhaps a bigger offseason development than Edey’s improvement has been this Purdue team’s commitment to defense. Last year’s squad could not get stops consistently, finishing No. 93 in adjusted defensive efficiency, largely thanks to surrendering an above-average share (40.6 percent of field goal attempts) of 3-pointers and opponents hitting them at a solid clip (33.2 percent). This season, Purdue opponents are getting fewer of their shots (35.3 percent) from behind the arc and are making fewer of them (30.0 percent), the former of which is arguably a better indicator of 3-point defense. This team is also disciplined, as it allows the lowest free-throw rate in the country and has held Big Ten opponents to fewer than eight free throws six times this season. Last month, the Boilermakers held Minnesota to 39 points in Minneapolis, its fewest in a game since 1951

However, taming expectations is an approach that Purdue fans are likely to take in March. In 2019, Purdue was five seconds away from its first Final Four since 1980 but lost to the eventual national champions. In 2018, Purdue entered the Big Dance with 12-1 national title odds but lost starting center Isaac Haas to a broken elbow in the first round and fell in the Sweet 16. In 2010, Purdue started 23-3 before All-American Robbie Hummel tore his ACL, and the team lost in the regional semifinal. Last season, with top seeds Baylor and Kentucky failing to reach the Sweet 16 and a North Carolina team that lost to Purdue earlier in the season advancing, the East Regional had shaped up advantageously for Painter. Instead, 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s cemented its magical run with a 3-point triumph.  

So why might this season be different for Purdue? For one, it actually fits the profile of past champions. Of the last 80 Final Four participants, dating back to the 2001-02 season, only five have entered the tournament with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking outside the top 50, and only one champion — UConn in 2014 — has finished outside the top 50 in either adjusted defensive or offensive efficiency heading into the tournament. These Boilermakers slot in at Nos. 7 and 20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, respectively. That means that while this squad isn’t as elite at scoring as last season’s team, which finished No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency, it’s much stingier defensively than last year’s No. 93, avoiding the shaky tournament profile — elite offense, porous defense — that’s doomed previous contenders.

Over the past decade, college basketball fans could set their (digital) watch to Purdue being an above-average-to-elite program that spit out 20-plus wins and flamed out before the third weekend of the tournament.6 But behind a post presence not seen before in West Lafayette — and a rugged defense — the Boilermakers might be capable of finally exorcising their March demons.


  1. The season after Painter graduated, Purdue won a then-school-record 29 games.

  2. That total, which excludes play-in games, amounts to 10 more tournament wins than archrival Indiana has over that stretch.

  3. The first instance occurred last season.

  4. Only five Big Ten players since 1992-93 have even averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

  5. Edey draws a conference-best 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes.

  6. Ironically, the university’s club basketball team has no difficulty getting it done on the national stage, having won two consecutive national championships.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.


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