For the second straight season, Purdue has reached the top of national polls and positioned themselves as the leading contender to win the Big Ten.
A league title would be nothing new for Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter, who can claim three regular season crowns to go with a conference tournament championship.
Painter, 52, still has a long way to go to reach Bob Knight’s 11 Big Ten titles, but the former IU head coach saw something he liked very early in Painter’s tenure in West Lafayette.
It was something that looked very familiar to the IU coaching legend.
“‘You have taken the guys that I would have taken,'” Painter recalled Knight saying on a Field of 68 podcast when Knight was working for ESPN as a color commentator.
Painter said Knight made those comments at a shootaround as Purdue prepared for a game during Painter’s first run of success as head coach there. That began in the 2007-08 season when Painter brought in a talented freshman class that was able to have success right away.
“‘You’ve done a good job,'” Painter recalled was Knight’s message. “‘You’ve taken some smart players that have some deficiencies, but their deficiencies aren’t their skill level, or their IQ, or their competitive spirit — and that’s really all that matters. People look at guys, and they rank them. It’s not track and field, it’s basketball.’
“He just rambled with me forever, and it just made a whole lot of sense.”
Painter won his first Big Ten title in 2010 with those recruits Knight could appreciate. But while it seems like Purdue has been good the entire time he has been in charge, that hasn’t always been the case.
The Boilermakers had four straight seasons with at least 13 losses from the 2011-12 campaign to 2014-15. There were two seasons in that stretch where Painter had a losing record.
Somewhere in that span, Painter recalled running into Knight again when all of the coaches gather at the Final Four. And this meeting struck a different chord.
If you know Bob Knight stories, this second interaction will sound familiar.
Brief, raw, and unilateral.
“He comes up and smacks me on my back,” Painter said. “He hits me. I don’t see him coming. He scared me, and he goes ‘Hey, what did I tell you about taking guys who weren’t intelligent? You got away from that didn’t you?’
“And he didn’t wait for my response and just moseyed on.”
Painter was telling this story in 2021. It clearly still hit home years later.
“That was his way of saying you’ve taken some guys, you’ve taken E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer — guys that know the game,” Painter said. “And now you’ve turned around and taken more of an athletic guy and gotten away from some of those other things.
“It’s still something that resonates with me, because he’s dead on. He’s right. He would take some guys that would fit into roles, and that’s something that I’ve always tried to do. Sometimes guys don’t like that, but that’s what leads to winning.”
Painter has gotten back to what works on the recruiting front. They are rarely anywhere near the top of the national team rankings for recruiting classes, but Purdue won the Big Ten again in 2017 and 2019, and they’ve now been ranked No. 1 in the AP top-25 each of the last two seasons.
Painter has spoken often in recent years about how too much focus is placed on recruiting rankings. His message in those remarks often sounds a lot like his interactions with Knight.
One such moment came after Purdue defeated IU at their Senior Day last March in West Lafayette.
“If you’re good, you’re good. I don’t like to label guys. I hate the (recruiting ranking) numbers. The numbers stink,” Painter said. “Anyone in this room can tell you who the top-20 (high school) players are in the country. But from 21 to 500, no one knows, right? Zach Edey was in like the 300s. How foolish are they? Chris Kramer was like 430, and all those guys do is win basketball games here at Purdue.”
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