There’s a cool-down period offered to the losing team after each Big Ten Tournament game. Ideally, players and coaches can gather their emotions before speaking to the media.
Following Purdue’s 57-55 first-round loss to Nebraska, which ended any hope of an NCAA Tournament or NIT berth, head coach Matt Painter knew what he wanted to say. It’s a message he conveyed after a season-opening loss to Bucknell, a sad showing at Eastern Michigan, and two blowouts served by rival Indiana. 32 games in, and it never changed.
“You’ve got to show a passion and commitment if you want me to trust you,” said Painter to the media.
In the game’s final minutes, with Purdue pushing back, star center A.J. Hammons sat on the bench. Instead, it was reserve forward Sandi Marcius filling the void and the talented freshman watched from the bench. It was a microcosm of the Boilermakers’ greater problem. The coach couldn’t trust the team.
Throughout the season, Painter was never able to settle on a rotation. On Thursday, he mixed seven Boilermakers into the lineup, then admitted later there was no comfort with any collection.
“We just didn’t have a group that can stay consistent,” Painter explained.
The final seconds ticked off the clock with Purdue players scrambling for a loose ball, ending a disappointing season with another gut-wrenching finish.
The play went exactly as Painter had hoped. Terone Johnson marched down the court, waited patiently for his chance, then heaved up the potential game-tying jumper. It rimmed out. Johnson then retrieved his own miss and tossed a hook shot. Again, it banked off the rim.
“He got it back and had another contested shot there,” Painter said. “You would like to get a little better look. But we had the ball in the right guy's hands.”
Traveling to Chicago, many deemed the Boilermakers to be a darkhorse in the talented field. It appeared they were beginning to click, and there’s no better time than in the postseason. But Purdue’s problems returned.
Nebraska led 45-39 with 11 minutes left in the second half, then it went cold. So did Purdue, though. The Boilers never got into a rhythm on offense and forced poor shots.
“Offensively, I just thought that we could have got some better looks, took some better shots down the stretch,” said flustered senior D.J. Byrd, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “But we just had to run the offense.”
Byrd carried the Boilermakers in what could be his final college game. When Purdue trailed by four with under a minute remaining, Byrd drilled a three-pointer to bring his team back. With 16 seconds remaining and the Boilers trailing by three, Byrd managed to tip in the loose ball and bring his team within a point.
Seated before the media after the game, Byrd hung his head to mask his emotions. He had been part of three NCAA Tournament teams, but won’t be on a fourth. The only realistic hope for Purdue’s postseason is the College Basketball Invitational.
“I always want to play some more games,” Byrd said, but understanding it’s not guaranteed, he added: “It would be great if we could.”
Should it be the beginning of Purdue’s offseason, Painter has a new message for his team: be a 12-month guy.
“You live in that gym, I start to trust you,” he said. “I think that’s an important thing in college basketball. Period.”