Purdue Boilermakers chase redemption in first Final Four appearance since 1980

The Purdue Boilermakers aim to etch their names in basketball history in the 2024 Men’s Final Four beginning Saturday at State Farm Stadium. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

A giant bracket of Purdue’s journey to the 2024 Men’s Final Four sits in the lobby of the team hotel in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Making the Final Four in the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament can be notoriously difficult, with some Power 5 programs going decades between appearances. This year is no different, with Alabama making its first appearance in the Final Four, as well as NC State reaching its first appearance since 1983’s championship run.

But for the Purdue Boilermakers, reaching the men’s Final Four marks not only their first appearance in the landmark event since 1980 but also a chance to avenge their past demons in the hunt for the program’s first championship.

This weekend’s stage at State Farm Stadium is unknown territory for Purdue and coach Matt Painter, who has never made it to the Final Four in his coaching career. The top-seeded Boilermakers face No. 11 N.C. State to kick off the slate Saturday at 3:09 p.m., followed by No. 1 seed UConn against fourth-seed Alabama. The winners meet Monday night in the title game.

“You know, it’s the first time in my coaching career, my 31st year, that I ever had a practice in April. We’ve been to a lot of tournaments, we’ve been to that second weekend, but (to) be able to get to a Final Four and be able to get to Phoenix in (the) nice weather, it’s pretty cool,” Painter said Tuesday evening, shortly after the team landed in the Valley.

This is Painter’s 19th year as the coach of the Boilermakers, with his previous best finish in the tournament coming in 2019, when Purdue suffered an 80-75 overtime loss in the Elite Eight to the champion Virginia Cavaliers.

Painter led Purdue to 15 tournament appearances during that stretch, only missing the tournament three times, as well as the canceled tournament of 2020 due to the pandemic. And yet, with all of the tournament success, the team has struggled to advance to the final weekend.

The Boilermakers fell victim to early upsets each of the last three years, only playing the second weekend in 2022, when they fell to No. 15 Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16. Purdue’s latest and most notable upset came as the No. 1 seed in the East region to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson 63-58.

If Purdue can win out Saturday and Monday, it will follow the trajectory of Virginia in 2019, the only other No. 1 seed to win the national championship one year after they lost to a No. 16 seed in men’s Division I history in a 74-54 defeat against UMBC in 2018.

Loyal supporters of Purdue men’s basketball welcome players, coaches and staff at the team hotel Wednesday for the 2024 Men's Final Four. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Loyal supporters of Purdue men’s basketball welcome players, coaches and staff at the team hotel Wednesday for the 2024 Men’s Final Four. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Purdue’s previous appearance dates back to the 1969 championship game, which ended in a 95-72 loss to UCLA in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final college game.

Throughout the season, the team has been subject to criticism and doubt due to its lack of tournament success in recent years. Painter acknowledged that the past few seasons have not had the ideal finishes, but he saw the shortcomings as a way to keep pushing forward.

“But yeah, there’s no doubt when you say you have that adversity and you have to face that adversity. And I think that’s something that we really talked about throughout the year is not getting away from that,” Painter said.

“Sometimes when people say derogatory things about you, it upsets you, but when it’s true, you know, (you) make some adjustments to that and we really didn’t change our conviction in terms of how we played. We just had to be better.”

The players have taken a majority of the abuse from social media, leaving some to avoid certain social media platforms. Senior guard Lance Jones, for example, deleted his X account during the season to avoid the noise and distractions.

“I mean, there were a lot of people, you know, that’ve never picked up a basketball and lives that have certain things to say. I just couldn’t honor it, so I just decided to delete it,” Jones said.

The team is enjoying its first visit to Phoenix and playing on this big of a stage. Bob Cousy Award finalist Braden Smith expressed excitement about this “unbelievable experience,” but hasn’t allowed the moment to blind him from the team’s mission.

“Yeah, I think we’re still caught up in the moment or at least I am,” Smith said. “I didn’t really understand the celebration after we won the last game. I was just like, ‘Hey, we got another game next week, and then one falling after that, hopefully.’ So I think I’m just in the moment.”

Sophomore guard Fletcher Loyer shared similar feelings about the trip to the Valley, knowing Purdue has unfinished business.

“Yeah, it’s been a lot of smiles. A lot of people congratulating us but, I think everybody knows that we didn’t come here to make the Final Four. We came here to win the whole thing. And I think us being ready to go, everyone being in, enjoying this moment, but also us knowing it’s a business trip,” Loyer said.

The Purdue Boilermakers, led by coach Matt Painter, arrive in Phoenix for their first Final Four appearance in over four decades. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

The Purdue Boilermakers, led by coach Matt Painter, arrive in Phoenix for their first Final Four appearance in over four decades. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Painter attributed some of this season’s success to 2023 Naismith Trophy winner Zach Edey, who has continued his dominance this season while also stepping more into a leadership role. Edey is typically a quieter player who leads by example, according to Painter, but he has raised his play and his voice during this tournament run.

“Well, it’s taken a while for him to open up, for a guy that didn’t play competitive basketball until his sophomore year in high school. You know, you’re just not sure of yourself. And he’s, he’s a guy that’s more of a competitor and leads by example, than anything,” Painter said.

The leadership from the unanimous AP All-American has been noticed in the locker room as well through his voice and actions.

“You know, everybody’s going to listen to Zach. You know, he’s a national player of the year for a reason,” Jones said.

“Yeah, he’s a huge lead-by-example guy. He’s always getting in extra work, always putting everything he has into the game. And I think when you’re the best player and the best player in the country is also the one of the hardest playing players. It’s something you look up to and some other guys want to follow suit.” Loyer said.

Amid all of the commotion from the outside and the battles on the court, Purdue is focused on one thing: winning its first men’s basketball national championship.

“Everybody’s working for one thing and that’s evident and whether it’s fans, staff players, everybody wants one thing and that’s to win,” Loyer said. “And I think that’s what makes it so special.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Spencer Barnes expects to graduate in May 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Barnes has been a sports beat writer for AZPreps365 and the Gunnison Country Times. He also has done Blaze Radio Sports and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network, clubs that have allowed him to take photos of ASU basketball, football and others. Barnes does freelance photography for Phoenix area high school football and basketball teams and hopes to end up as a traveling or team photographer for the NBA.