COLUMBUS, Ohio – Purdue's locker room was nearly silent Friday night following the top-seeded Boilermakers' season-ending 63-58 loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the NCAA Tournament's round of 64 at Nationwide Arena.
Players milled around their lockers, fielding questions from reporters, getting ready to head home for the offseason far sooner than they had anticipated. Sandwiches waited for them in the hallway, almost entirely untouched.
“There’s not much to say," Boilermakers center Zach Edey said. "We’re kind of speechless.”
When Edey, a consensus All-American and the Sporting News national player of the year, was asked about his thoughts walking off the court after the game, he paused for several seconds before answering, almost in a whisper:
“I don’t know how to explain it. Every negative emotion you can think of, anger, sadness, stress, everything. We know how hard we worked this year, we knew we exceeded expectations all year. … People were saying if we made the tournament it was going to be a good year. I’m just so proud of this team, so proud of everything we’ve done this year. It just sucks it had to end this way.”
Purdue did exceed expectations this season. The Boilermakers lost one of the best players in the country, Jaden Ivey, plus two other starters from last year's team and reloaded around Edey. The big man dragged Purdue to Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles, 29 wins (one shy of the program-record of 30 and the same as last season) and the the Boilers' first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed since 1996. It was, by almost any measure, a successful campaign.
But Friday's result changes all of that and the Boilermakers know it. They set out in this tournament determined to make history and reach the Final Four for the first time since 1980. They made another kind of history instead, becoming just the second No. 1 seed to lose in the round of 64 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That will be this team's legacy, despite all of the success that came before it. In the locker room, it was clear players were already coming to that realization.
“We proved it this year when people doubted us," Purdue wing Ethan Morton said. "Obviously not today. That’s disappointing, people are going to come back to today and say, ‘We told you so.’ And we just have to sit in it, which frickin’ sucks. Hopefully better days ahead. (Purdue guard David Jenkins Jr.) says it all the time, ‘It has to stop raining sometime.’”
The sting of this defeat, which saw the Boilermakers go 5 for 26 from 3-point range and turn the ball over 16 times, is compounded by the Groundhog Day feel of it. The Boilers have lost to a team seeded 12th or lower in the NCAA Tournament four times in their last seven trips to the Big Dance and the last three years in a row, with this defeat coming on the heels of losses to No. 15 seed St. Peter's last year and 13th-seeded North Texas in 2021. Across the country, this is what Purdue is known for now and it will be until it breaks that Final Four drought.
“This is what matters most," Morton said. "Obviously the Big Ten matters a ton, it means everything to us, but especially with our unfortunate track record in this tournament the past few years, you always want more. It stinks when it gets away from you like that.”
There will be time in the coming weeks and months to question whether there is something inherent in coach Matt Painter's program-building process or coaching style which makes these deflating defeats in March more likely. At this point, the discussion must be had – and Painter is likely asking himself the same – as it was clear Friday the Boilermakers did not have enough talent outside of Edey to compete when the opponent took the center away as an offensive option. Against a mid-major which snuck into the tournament on a technicality (the Knights lost in their conference tournament, but champion Merrimack was ineligible for the tournament as it transitions from Division II to Division I) that is unacceptable. Painter is in no danger of losing his job – he is locked in for as long as he wants to lead the program – but he needs to spend this offseason re-evaluating how he assembles his teams. March Madness is always full of surprises, but Purdue has lost these games often enough it's not a coincidence anymore.
It was always going to happen like this
That's especially true because his putative strategy for roster-building – surround elite size with shooting and skill on the perimeter – fell flat this season. Purdue had the size, of course, and it had the shooting on paper, but in practice, the Boilermakers did not make nearly as many 3s as they expected. As shocking as this loss was for the Boilermakers, the manner in which it happened wasn't particularly surprising. It has been relatively clear for several weeks that Purdue's season would likely end in a string of bricked 3-pointers and turnovers and that is exactly what happened. The round in which it occurred was not expected, but the Boilermakers probably would have lost a game much like this in the second round or in the Sweet 16 if it had not happened tonight.
The plain fact is this roster underperformed from beyond the arc essentially across the board, ranking 268th in 3-point shooting percentage at 32.6% overall despite Edey's enormous presence creating a plethora of open looks. It was the same story against the Knights, who swarmed Edey with two or three defenders at all times and left Purdue to beat them from the outside if they could. They could not, with everyone except Fletcher Loyer going 2 for 18 long range. Loyer, the former Homestead Spartan, scored 13 points, went 3 for 8 and made two 3s down the stretch to keep his team in it, but it was too little too late. An FDU defense which came into the game permitting opponents to shoot 47.7% from the field held the Boilermakers to 36% overall.
In the end, for all of the skill Painter has supposedly recruited around Edey, the Knights were simply better than the Boilermakers from point guard through power forward. In the final minutes of the game, Fairleigh Dickinson made big play after big play and the Boilermakers mostly waited for Edey to bail them out. He tried, and totaled 21 points and 15 rebounds, but the Boilermakers found it difficult to get the ball into him and his six offensive rebounds did not create enough extra possessions to make up for all of the ones the Boilers wasted with turnovers and badly-missed 3s. Playing with the most dominant interior force in the country, the Boilermakers did not so much as attempt a 2-point shot for a 9:09 stretch in the second half. The takeaway there is Painter got out-maneuvered – badly – by FDU's Tobin Anderson.
Now, with the season over, Zach Edey Watch begins. The 7-foot-4 center is not projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA Draft and some experts don't have him going in the second round, either. He has two years of eligibility remaining and could come back to remove the bad taste from his mouth, but he insisted after the game he has not even begun to think about that decision yet, though he admitted it will be extremely difficult for him.
"It’s tough, man," Edey said. "I’ve never been in a better locker room. I’ve never been surrounded by better teammates, so that makes it super tough. If there was no money involved, I’d stay at Purdue in a heartbeat, but there is and I have to make the best decision for me. … But I love every single dude in this locker room more than I’ve ever loved anyone in any locker room.”
“I want to come back and I want to go to war with them, but at the end of the day I have to make the best decision for me because I have no idea how long my career’s going to last; I have no idea what’s going to happen in my future. ... I just wish it could’ve ended different.”
Painter also professed to be unsure what Edey would do next.
"He's a level-headed guy," the 18th-year Boilermakers coach said. "He'll take the information in and make a decision and do what's best for him. He's pretty simple in things. But it's not me. His parents are great. The people around him are great. He's a good dude. It's too bad. He deserves better than this. He deserves better."
Purdue can not really go about making plans for next year until Edey makes his decision. If he comes back, the Boilers will obviously build their team around him again, ideally with better guard play from Loyer, Braden Smith, Brandon Newman and incoming freshman Myles Colvin, a springy wing who is the son of Boilermakers football great Rosevelt Colvin.
If Edey leaves, the Boilers will turn to Trey Kaufman-Renn, Caleb Furst and 7-2 redshirt freshman Will Berg down low and will have a completely different look. With super-athletic Camden Heide also set to make his debut after redshirting this year and a transfer to be named later potentially joining the program, the Boilermakers could be a Big Ten contender again even without Edey if some of their younger players make a leap.
The Boilers can take some comfort (and motivation) from the fact the only other team to lose to a 16-seed in the round of 64, Virginia in 2018, won the national championship the following season. Painter admitted he will discuss that fact with his team, but knows discussion can only go so far.
"Sure, you're going to talk about it," he said. "But it's going to be the work. It's going to be the drive, the hurt. It's got to sit with you, man. It's got to sit with you to get you to work harder; not talk about it. You don't need to talk about anything. We've got to work harder.
People can say we have young guys. It doesn't matter. When you step out there it doesn't matter. You've got to compete and be better than your opponent. We're not going to give into it, I know that. Unless they move me. We're not going to give into it. We'll keep fighting and do everything in our power to make our program better to get right back here and play better.
"You'll get ridiculed. You'll get shamed, you'll get whatever. It's basketball. You've got to get better. You've got to keep fighting to get yourself in this position and then be better. And that's what we have to do."