March Madness: Purdue's painful NCAA tournament history reaches boiling point of failure in historic loss to Fairleigh Dickinson

Purdue was on the precipice of NCAA men's tournament infamy on Friday night when TV cameras cut to the Boilermakers' huddle during a timeout.

There was head coach Matt Painter scribbling on a clipboard, desperately trying to diagram a play to score five points in less than six tenths of a second.

That moment of futility at the end of Purdue's 63-58 loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson is the perfect metaphor for the Boilermakers' tortured history in March. Painter always seems to be searching in vain for a play that can free star-crossed Purdue from 43 years of NCAA tournament anguish and heartache.

Since its most recent Final Four appearance in 1980, Purdue has claimed 10 Big Ten regular-season titles, made 31 NCAA tournament appearances and secured a No. 1 seed four times. None of those teams have made it back to the Final Four. Some have fallen short in the most agonizing ways imaginable.

In 1994, a Glenn Robinson-led Purdue team won 29 games, secured a No. 1 seed and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. Then Robinson suffered a back injury — allegedly goofing around roughhousing in a hotel room with teammates — and shot a miserable 6-for-22 in a loss to Duke.

In 1996, Purdue again won the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed. This time, the Boilermakers narrowly avoided losing to 16th-seeded Western Carolina before falling a round later to Georgia.

In 2000, Purdue caught some breaks and earned a golden opportunity, needing only to defeat eighth-seeded Wisconsin to reach the Final Four. Brian Cardinal and the Boilermakers endured an ill-timed late scoring drought and lost 64-60.

In 2010, Indianapolis was the site of the Final Four and Purdue had a team capable of competing for the title. Then in late February, star Robbie Hummel suffered the first of multiple ACL tears and the Boilermakers never were the same again.

In 2019, Carsen Edwards put third-seeded Purdue on his back and the Boilermakers had top-seeded Virginia beat in the Elite Eight. Only an incredible pass by Kihei Clark and a buzzer-beating jump shot from Mamadi Diakite preserved the Cavaliers’ national title hopes.

In 2022, a Purdue team featuring future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey and a pair of talented 7-footers needed only to beat 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s to advance to the Elite Eight. Doug Edey and the Peacocks instead added to their legend, rallying from a four-point deficit in the final five minutes.

Some of the close calls and near misses felt unlucky. Purdue's latest NCAA tournament meltdown was self-inflicted.

Fairleigh Dickinson was ranked sub-300 by most advanced metrics entering the NCAA tournament. The Knights lost their conference tournament title game. Their head coach was in charge of a Division II program at this time last year. Their roster is the shortest in all of Division I college basketball.

And yet when Friday's game was hanging in the balance, it was Fairleigh Dickinson who played big and Purdue who shrunk from the moment.

Fairleigh Dickinson turned its lack of size into an offensive strength, spreading the floor and attacking the basket. The Knights masked their weakness at the other end by bracketing 7-foot-4 Zach Edey with multiple defenders in an effort to force someone besides college basketball’s national player of the year front-runner to beat them.

Edey scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, but he attempted only one shot in the game’s final 12 minutes. Fairleigh Dickinson dared Purdue’s other players to beat it and they couldn’t. Fletcher Loyer, Braden Smith and Mason Gillis each missed numerous wide-open 3s en route to 5-of-26 shooting from behind the arc. Smith also committed seven of Purdue’s 16 turnovers.

In the aftermath of the loss, Painter tried to make sense of it. How could this happen to a team that beat Duke, Gonzaga and Marquette in non-conference play and swept the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles?

“Six straight years we've been a top-5 seed,” Painter said. “And that's all you try to do. You just try to fight to get in the best position possible. And now we get in the best position possible and this happens. And obviously it hurts. It hurts bad.”

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Painter. There will surely be plenty of hot-take artists saying that his teams always choke and that he’ll never win in March.

The reality is that Purdue wouldn’t keep winning Big Ten titles and earning No. 1 seeds without Painter. This season's team exceeded all preseason expectations after sending Ivey to the NBA and losing three other key players.

There was a time when people said that Bill Self couldn’t win in March. Same with Scott Drew and Jay Wright.

Maybe someday Painter will put an end to that talk too. But for at least one more year, he’s just the coach of the NCAA tournament’s most star-crossed program, a program that has endured more March anguish than anyone.

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