No. 3 Boilermakers using historic NCAA Tournament exit as motivation in 2023-2024

Purdue coach Matt Painter could have spent this past offseason shrugging off another stunning NCAA Tournament exit.

Instead, he and the Boilermakers owned it.

From the moment Painter and Virginia coach Tony Bennett traded postgame text messages, Painter and the third-ranked Boilermakers knew the endless questions about their historic first-round loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson would follow them wherever they went. So they only had option: Follow Bennett's lead and turn a humbling loss into motivation for a championship run.

"You don't run from things. You always face things,” Painter said when practice opened in September. “I think when you face things, it's harder. But that's what kind of brings the demons out and really helps you because now you have a little bit more drive, you're a little more focused."

Purdue's remarkable 2022-2023 season started as the ride of a lifetime.

Three straight wins helped the Boilermakers go from unranked to No. 24. Their next three wins — over West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke during a four-day span — sent them up to No. 5. Four more wins and a 10-0 mark put Purdue at No. 1 just one month into the season and for only the second time in school history.

Then Painter's crew proceeded to sweep the Big Ten regular season and tournament crowns and never fell out of the top five again while earning its first No. 1 seed since 1996, thanks largely to 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the consensus national player of he year.

By March, most college basketball observers figured the third-ranked Boilermakers were finally poised to make that elusive Final Four run.

But the lowest-seeded team in the 68-team tourney field had different thoughts. The Knights used a harassing, confusing defense to put the bigger Boilermakers on their heels and as the pressure mounted, Purdue's 3-point shots stopped falling in, Edey's impact shrunk, and Fairleigh Dickinson emerged as the second No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1, 63-58.

It wasn't the first time Painter or the frustrated Boilermakers suffered such a fate. Before the Knights, Purdue suffered losses to 15th-seeded Saint Peter's in 2022, 13th-seeded North Texas State in 2021, 12th-seeded Little Rock in 2016 and 11th-seeded VCU in 2011.

If Painter learned anything from those previous losses, it was this: Live with the result and improve.

“When you have a loss like that, it's just really hard to talk to your players. It's hard for everybody because you put so much into it,” he said. “You just have to sit in it. You soul-search. You figure out who's really behind you, and then you figure out you've done some really good things. What it gets you to do is think you've got to change a lot when in reality you don't.”

Only one other coach truly understood what Painter and Purdue were dealing with — Bennett, whose top-seeded Cavaliers lost to No. 16 UMBC 74-54 exactly five years earlier.

Bennett and Painter have more in common than just a couple of mystifying losses.

Both grew up in the Midwest, played for Gene Keady and served Big Ten stints for their coaching mentors. Bennett even helped lead Wisconsin-Green Bay past Painter and Purdue in December 1991 at Mackey Arena, and Keady, who coached Bennett on the 1991 U.S. team for the Pan American Games even believed both proteges would one day become successful coaches.

Then in 2019, Bennett and Painter found themselves squaring off again, this time at the Elite Eight, with both seeking to reach their first Final Four. Bennett won that matchup, too.

So when Bennet reached out, Painter welcomed the gesture.

"I talked to him the night we got beat. I talked to him. We texted each other,” Painter said. “Obviously, he experienced that. But what stood out to me was more was what he just went through. They had just gotten beat by Furman on a real tough play where they were in control of the game. It was tough. So for him to think about us when it happens to you, it's a pretty big hole in your stomach."

As the months went by, the Boilermakers used that burning desire to do it all over again as inspiration.

Forward Mason Gillis watched game tape and started searching for solutions. Edey opted to return for his fourth college season and worked overtime putting up shot after shot in his quest to become the fifth back-to-back winner of The Associated Press player of the year award.

Sophomore guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith were determined to come back stronger and better suited to deal with the long, physical workload after faltering late last season, including a combined 6 of 20 shooting with 10 turnovers against Fairleigh Dickinson.

“It's listening to this guy (Edey), playing with my players and being able to iron out things that we need to,” Gillis said, explaining the resolve to do it all over again. “Just learning the game continually, that's all it takes.”

Purdue may be deeper, too. Eight of last season's top 10 players return. Painter has added all-conference guard Lance Jones, a transfer from Southern Illinois, and promising recruit Myles Colvin.

And, incredibly, the Boilermakers appear to be even bigger with Caleb Furst's brother, Josh, joining the program and 7-2 Will Berg expected to play after redshirting last season.

Will all that be enough for Purdue to follow the same script Bennett's team created in 2018-2019, winning the program's first national title? The mission begins Monday night against Samford.

“When you have a chance to kind of right your wrong, you don't get a lot of opportunities like that in life,” Edey said. “We have that opportunity in front of us. It's a blessing, it's something a lot of people on our team take very seriously. Everyone's worked really hard this summer to right that wrong.”

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