GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Other Big Ten coaches walked into the high school point guard’s living room and told him lots of things he wanted to hear, and very little he did not. The coach at Purdue at the time, Gene Keady, informed the recruit that if he signed with the Boilermakers, he’d either need to enroll in summer school when he got there, or get a job.

Matt Painter, then a promising prospect from Delta High School in Muncie, Indiana, didn’t love that. His dad did.

“He said, ‘That’s the only person who told you the truth,'” Painter recalled.

That story might best explain how the 53-year-old Painter ended up where he is today: coaching his alma mater for the national title, with the Purdue program he now leads set to play UConn on Monday.

This milestone comes some 35 years after Painter threw in with Keady, and 19 years after he took over the legendary coach’s job, armed with a worldview that did not allow for shortcuts and demanded honesty — to himself, his program and the players he brings in.

“When he played for me, I knew how honest he was, and that was my main ingredient to judge,” said Keady, 87, who is in Arizona this week and going to the games. “All you’ve got to do is tell the truth and it won’t come back to bite you. He was always very good with that.”

The Painter way, and the Purdue way, aren’t supposed to work so well in an ever-growing pay-for-play world in which the power dynamic has changed. Players hit the market looking for money and playing time; coaches who can’t make those promises are often left behind.

But Purdue is doing things differently. Its best player, Zach Edey, is, to coin a phrase, “NIL challenged” because he hails from Canada, and immigration laws restrict his ability to cash in on the name, image and likeness deals that are taking over college sports.

And the freewheeling transfer portal that allows teams to rebuild and revamp quickly is not a huge factor with the Boilermakers. Painter points with pride to the fact that he has signed two transfers over the last four years, the fewest among major college teams.

“In the spring, it’s an auction,” Painter said. “I sign a lot of guys in the fall, and I stay away from the spring.”

Job security is a rare luxury for a coach who cannot parlay regular-season success into wins in the tournament. But the Boilermakers are an outlier. They have had two coaches over the last 44 years — Keady and Painter — even though this is their first Final Four during that span.

“I was very quickly convinced,” said Mike Bobinski, who became Purdue’s athletic director in 2016 and has Painter on a five-year deal that automatically extends by a season each year. “We had a system that’s so fundamentally sound and so grounded with a coach who’s so dedicated to the game, to his players, to the university, so why would we change that?”

Painter refuses to bow to today’s trends inside the lines either.

Unwilling to accept that teams can’t win anymore by running offense through a 7-foot-4 center who plays with his back to the basket and doesn’t shoot 3s, the coach went against the grain and featured Edey. In doing so, he doubled down on what he’s been preaching for years.

“If you become one of our top two or three scorers, here is my vision for you,” Painter said, in recounting his recruiting pitch. “And if you don’t, then you’re going to have to be able, from a role-definition standpoint, to fit around those guys offensively.”

It’s a bargain that cuts both ways for those who accept it.

“He’s good about saying things just the way they are,” said junior Caleb Furst, whose minutes have been cut in half this season.

The story of 2024 for Purdue is about how a team that flamed out in the opening round last year as a No. 1 seed has been able to take that harsh ending and turn it into something better.

Some coaches might have leaned into the transfer portal after that first-round loss, or maybe even pushed a player like Edey to go pro, so he could recalibrate the team back to running and playing from the outside in.

Instead, Painter kept going in the same direction.

He has five freshmen on his roster, none of whom play a lot, and most of whom will probably be around for years. He has six seniors. In what is likely not a coincidence, he signed six high schoolers to his incoming 2024 recruiting class.

“The way we’ve been able to do it at Purdue now is just like we did it then,” Painter said. “We’re trying to sign high school guys and develop them and grow with them.”

It’s a game plan that has worked for Purdue and Painter. That they have edged this close to the title might feel like a win in some corners, no matter how Monday night turns out.

“I think if it got to the point where he couldn’t do it that way, he’d go do something else,” Bobinski said. “He just insists on doing it that way. I think it’s refreshing.”


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