Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson's takedown of No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday was the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The Knights downed the Boilermakers as 23-point underdogs to become just the second No. 16 seed to ever defeat a No. 1 seed. And yet as shocking as it may be, for Boilermakers fans it's another all-too-familiar postseason letdown under coach Matt Painter.

With four regular-season Big Ten titles since 2010, Purdue has been one of the best teams in the Big Ten from November to February. However, regular-season success and favorable seeds in the Big Dance have not translated to a Final Four, much less a title appearance or a national title. Rather, they have led to shocking early exits. Purdue has made a nasty habit of falling flat on its face instead of advancing deep in the bracket. The loss to FDU marked the Boilers' third straight loss at the hands of a double-digit seed; previously, they fell to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in the Sweet 16 and were bounced by No. 13 seed North Texas in the first round the year before that. 

To question Painter's credentials as a tactician would be to question the writing style of Charles Dickens or the entrepreneurship of Thomas Edison -- seriously, good luck! -- but the NCAA Tournament disappointments under Painter have stacked up in recent years culminating with arguably the worst loss of his career.

How does it keep happening? Is it a Painter problem? A Purdue problem? Did the Boilermakers in another life curse the basketball gods? Painter did his darndest to sum it up succinctly in his post-game press conference. 

"Well, today, the form within our system in terms of recruiting is to have the balance of great bigs with skill [around them]," he said. "This wasn't something for us that was just today. It's frustrating. It kind of just mounted for us and got worse at times. I think we shot one out-of-rhythm 3, maybe another one. But the game plan is not for people to stay in there on them and contest, it's to stay in on [Zach Edey] and then not even contest."

The result from Friday: Edey -- the Player of the Year frontrunner -- got his. He finished with 21 points, 15 boards and hit nearly 70% of his shots. Non-Edey threats around him: 12 of 42 shooting (28.6%) from the floor, 5 of 26 shooting from 3-point range and 16 turnovers against the pressure-heavy defense of FDU. 

"Our style is hard to play against," FDU coach Tobin Anderson said. "I'm sure Big Ten teams don't press as much. Our quickness, our speed, our style, our uptempo kind of hurt [Purdue] a little bit. Our guys defended their tails off and played great. We're happy to survive and advance and move on." 

You can just as easily chalk up Purdue's unfortunate postseason failures to just that -- misfortune -- as you can to poor coaching or scheming. Half of its NCAA Tournament losses since 2019 have come in overtime, and last year's loss to Saint Peter's came by three points. The Boilers lost by five on Friday. But the trend of taking a nose dive at the point when expectations are high is impossible to ignore. Here's how the Boilermakers have fared in recent years in the NCAA Tournament dating back to 2019 when it made the Elite Eight as a No. 3 seed and lost to eventual champion Virginia: 

  • 2023: No. 1 seed in East Region, Round 1 loss to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson
  • 2022: No. 3 seed in East Region, Sweet 16 loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's
  • 2021: No. 4 seed in South Region, Round 1 loss to No. 13 seed North Texas in overtime
  • 2019: No. 3 seed in South Region, Elite Eight loss to No. 1 seed Virginia in overtime

Notable postseason results

Postseason failures feel exponentially more painful for Purdue fans now given that its loss to FDU continues a trend of stunning early exits. But Purdue under Painter has notably been largely successful both in the regular season and postseason. Since he took over in 2005, the Boilermakers have won four Big Ten regular-season championships, advanced to six Sweet 16s, made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and made eight consecutive Big Dance appearances dating back to 2015.

"You've got to compete and be better than your opponent," said Painter on Friday. "We're not going to give into it. I know that. Unless they move me, we're not going to give into it."

Purdue's guards fall short

Because it doesn't carry the brand power to recruit like an Indiana or a Michigan State, Purdue's path to success under Painter has been to schematically win with a system revolving around big men while relying on guards. But even when the bigs are at their best, the system is only as good as the guards around them. And that was unfortunately proven true Friday. FDU dared Purdue's guards and wings to beat it, and they couldn't. 

"Who really wants to step up and knock that shot down? You have to have three or four guys that want that," said Painter. "I thought the Saint Peter's game [last year], those guys made it really hard for Zach once he caught it. He had those turnovers in that game. In this game, it wasn't the case. He could score. We were just wide open and they weren't going to let us get it in there, and why should they? [They are trying to] make those other guys [beat them]."