Two years ago the Purdue men’s basketball team ended with a 15-17 record and finished dead last in the Big Ten standings. This year, 11th-year coach Matt Painter leads a Boilermaker squad fresh off its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012. Purdue returns two of its three top scorers from a season ago and sits pretty at No. 20 in the AP Poll.
At Big Ten Media Day in October, the Daily had a chance to catch up with Painter and talk about his approach coming off of a tournament appearance, recruiting in a Big Ten battleground state, and how Michigan guard Spike Albrecht helped him land one of his own point guards at Purdue.
The Michigan Daily: After making the tournament last year for the first time since 2012, do you approach this season any differently?
Matt Painter: No, we just try to build off of it. You know, I thought Rapheal Davis really helped our culture and (A.J.) Hammons really helped our culture. Because those guys struggled the first two years. And a lot of times you find adversity and guys respond to it and it really shows a lot about their character, and both of those guys were — they were all in. We just had a couple of losses non-conference and had some tough practices, and they fought. They kept fighting. They didn’t wilt; they didn’t give into it, and that’s just great. So we’ve made improvements because of those two guys and (Jon) Octeus. Octeus was really important for us. That’s recruiting right there — that’s luck. Getting Octeus is luck, and so we were very fortunate, because I don’t think we could’ve gotten to that point without him. Now we need some people to step into his shoes and able to add some talent. I think we have a more talented group, a more experienced group. I think that’s really going to help our team.
TMD: As for people stepping into those shoes, how much of an impact can freshman Grant Weatherford have this year?
MP: Well, he’s got to be able to get by some of those guys. Johnny Hill’s got a lot of experience. P.J. Thompson, you know, obviously played some for us last year, and both of those guys have really played well. So he’s got to get by those guys. We have a really deep, kind of a ‘2,’ ‘3,’ ‘4’ spot, so he’s gonna have a tough time getting in there at the ‘2,’ because we have (Dakota) Mathias; we have (Kendall) Stephens; we have (Rapheal) Davis; we have (Vince) Edwards; we have (Caleb) Swanigan; we have Basil Smotherman. We have seven guys who have started at least 11 games. … Then you bring in Johnny Hill, who’s got a chance to compete for a starting spot and Swanigan, that’s a lot of depth.
TMD: How much more difficult is it recruiting in Indiana, a state that’s produced so much talent?
MP: I think it’s difficult recruiting, period. I think as you get more experience, you have to do a good job of knowing who you are and knowing who you can get. You always feel you want the most talented guy, and that’s not the best guy always for you. You got to make sure that talented guy fits in your program. Not just like you’re getting quicker. We’ve gotten quicker, we’ve gotten more athletic, but have you gotten better? I think that’s probably a better question to ask yourself. So it’s hard to recruit in Indiana, because everybody recruits our state, but it’s hard to recruit everywhere. So just trying to find your guy that fits with you.
TMD: What advice would you give recruits?
MP: Be honest. Tell everybody you’re open. Be honest. Take your information. The people that are getting recruited are doing something rarely they’ve been through, so they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But we get our feelings hurt all the time. But we’d rather our feelings get hurt than (you don’t) tell us the truth. That’d be my piece of advice.
Plus we get lied to so much. They don’t aim to do it, they just don’t want to hurt our feelings. “Oh, we feel good about you.” They’re not coming to our school. “Oh yeah, you’re going to be one of our schools.” What, you got 20 of them?… Are we going to be in the top five of your schools? And they don’t mean anything by it, they just have not been through it. They see how hard you’re working … now some of them that tell you that, they mean it. So we get lied to a lot, and it forces us not to really know. You know how many times I’ve been told, “Coach, put it down. We’re visiting. I promise you we’re visiting.” Two weeks later, they’re not visiting. So I try to be honest about, hey, I’m offering you three a scholarship, and whoever takes it first gets it.
TMD: You saw Spike Albrecht play once in high school. Is there any guy in the Big Ten that you look at and wonder why you didn’t recruit him?
MP: Oh there are a lot of guys like that. It’s an inexact science; you are going to make mistakes. You know, Spike Albrecht’s been great. He fits their system and what they do and what they run. Spike Albrecht could play a lot of places, he’s got a lot of winning qualities. Sometimes when you see guys with his type of size they get passed by. And it makes you kind of stop — I took (sophomore guard) P.J. Thompson because of Spike Albrecht.
TMD: Was Albrecht on your radar at all?
MP: No. I knew who he was because I knew who his brother was, I knew he played and I watched him, but no. P.J. Thompson, I took him because we were having difficulty at that position, we had some talented guys, but we didn’t have guys doing a good job playing the position. That position you got to make other guys better. Spike makes other guys better. P.J. Thompson makes other guys better. So when you look at P.J. Thompson, he’s 5-(foot)-10, but he’s a good basketball player, so we recruited him for a long time and we got away from him, really because of his size, and after watching Spike play and how productive he was, I’m like, “You know what, we got a guy in our backyard again.” You know, we passed on (Spike) — not to say we could’ve got him, we didn’t recruit him. So make sure you take guys that fit, and I think P.J. fits in our place.