Published March 16, 2011
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue coach Matt Painter always has embraced Gene Keady's legacy.
He's quickly building an impressive one of his own.
Keady won more than 500 games in 25 years at Purdue, and the court at Mackey Arena has been named for him. If Keady's success is the barometer, the 40-year-old Painter has already cast quite a shadow of his own in West Lafayette. Purdue has won at least 25 games four consecutive years, and takes the No. 3 seed in the Southwest Region into an NCAA tournament matchup with St. Peter's on Friday.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, impressed after Purdue beat the Spartans at Mackey Arena in January, said Painter has done well as Keady's successor.
"This venue is back to where it was in the Keady days," Izzo said. "If Matt stomped his feet and changed his hair, it would be just like the '80s."
Painter has been picked as the Big Ten coach of the year three of the past four seasons. Since the award's inception in 1974, just three other coaches — Keady, Ohio State's Thad Matta and former Indiana coach Bob Knight — have won it at least three times.
He'll take his next step without Kelsey Barlow. Painter this week kicked the backup point guard off the team for the NCAA tournament for conduct detrimental to the team. Painter has called Barlow one of the best perimeter defenders in the Big Ten.
"We're committed to helping our players develop both on and off the court," Painter said. "This is unfortunate and disappointing, but we'll move forward as a team."
Now in his sixth season at his alma mater, Painter took over the program when the Boilermakers were struggling. Purdue went 7-21 in Keady's final year, and 9-19 in Painter's first season.
Since then, Purdue has posted five straight seasons with at least 20 wins.
Purdue rewarded Painter with a new contract after last season that will keep him leading the Boilermakers through the 2016-17 season. Purdue said at the time that it would give Painter a $1.3 million base salary, plus up to $1 million of incentives for academic, athletic and attendance performance.
He has rewarded the school's faith. Painter's Boilermakers have been successful this season, despite losing top returning player Robbie Hummel to a torn ACL during preseason practice. Hummel, the team's No. 2 scorer and rebounder last season, was the team's glue — a versatile 6-foot-8 forward who stretched defenses and did the all the little things right.
Many experts wrote the Boilermakers off when Hummel was injured, but Painter and his team saw a challenge.
"I think they're hungry," Painter said before the season. "When something like this happens and you lose a big piece of what you do, people are going to doubt you. And I think with that, it motivates our guys, it motivates our team."
Led by JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, Purdue finished with a 16-0 record at Mackey Arena, the program's first undefeated home season since 1968-69. Purdue also posted its fourth-straight top-two finish in the conference, and is one of two teams to beat Ohio State this season. Johnson was named the conference player of the year, and Moore was an All-Big Ten selection.
Purdue was considered by many a contender for a No. 1 seed, but they lost their regular-season finale to Iowa and their Big Ten tournament quarterfinal to Michigan State.
It's not a new position. The Boilermakers lost back-to-back games against Minnesota and West Virginia in January and bounced back to win 10 of their next 12. Painter feels returning to a high level of defensive play will be the key to making a run in the NCAA tournament.
"So for many years, that's what Purdue has hung their hat on," he said. "We've just got to do a better job of that, and every guy on our team understands it's our identity and how we're going to move forward and win games."
Despite the recent struggles, Purdue heads into Friday's game with confidence.
"We went to the Sweet 16 (last year), and I think this year we have a better team than we did last year," Johnson said. "We still are capable of doing some special things, we've just got to really come together as a team and move forward."