SPORTS: Glimmers of hope give Painter a long honeymoon

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In terms of a transition game, Purdue University’s Matt Painter hasn’t yet been able to get out on the figurative fast break.

First, there was the year he spent as associate head coach during Gene Keady’s long goodbye, when the Boilers struggled to a woeful 7-21 mark.

Then, last season, when Painter assumed full control of the Boilermakers, injuries and suspensions factored heavily into a 9-19 record and a last-place, 3-13 finish in the Big Ten.

And this year? With only two proven talents-forward Greg Landry and guard David Teague-and just 10 scholarship players, it would appear another season might be spent waiting for Painter’s tenure to gain traction.

But then, how to explain the renewed passion for Purdue hoops, reflected by rising season-ticket sales and Painter’s unflagging popularity among the Boilermaker faithful?

Strange, in these times of instant gratification, that Painter, 36, is able to indefinitely extend his honeymoon.

Then again, what’s not to admire about this young, earnest, no-nonsense coach? After all, he is a prominent member of the Purdue family-former starter and captain-not to mention a native son from Delta High School near Muncie.

And the coaching pedigree is solid gold and black. Painter, of course, followed Keady’s longtime No. 1 assistant, Bruce Weber, to Southern Illinois University, where the Salukis became a mid-major monster. Then, after Illinois hired Weber, Painter took over and guided SIU to a 25-5 record and an NCAA berth, which set him up to come to Purdue in the Keady succession plan.

Now he’s in his dream job, keeper of the Boilermaker flame.

“Be careful of what you wish for,” he said with a wry smile during the recent Big Ten basketball media day at Chicago. “But I’m happy I made this decision. I knew it was going to be tough. But I’m also grateful for the opportunity. I know there are a lot of people out there who attended Purdue and live vicariously through the basketball season or through Coach Tiller and the football season.

“So we want to make those people proud, and that starts with playing hard and getting that back. When you watch Purdue from 1980-2005, whether you won or lost when you walked off the court, you knew those teams were prepared and played hard. Those teams were tough to play against. We need to get that back. That’s the nuts and bolts of having success.”

And even during last year’s woeful season-when Painter took the necessary disciplinary steps to clean out some of the rotten wood in the forest-there were encouraging signs. Far more often than not, Purdue lost on talent, not effort.

“A lot of people thought we just put our heads in the sand and quit last year and we didn’t,” Painter said. “We made a lot of improvement in that area and our guys continued to fight and play hard. Now we’ve got two guys coming back in Landry and Teague who we feel are all-conference-type players. We’re having success in recruiting. Now if we can keep building, I think we can get back to the top of the Big Ten. The question is, how soon?”

Another how-soon question surrounds Purdue’s early schedule. Nothing bolsters belief like winning, but the Boilers-after opening against directional schools (Northern Colorado and Western Carolina)-will go to the Maui Invitational. It won’t be a vacation. They’ll face Georgia Tech in the first game, then either Memphis or Oklahoma in the next round. After they return, Virginia awaits in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“We have to gain confidence, we have to have better team chemistry, and we have to find a unit that can play together while we gain experience because we still don’t have very much,” Painter said. “David Teague is the only guy we have on our team who has played in the NCAA tournament. We don’t have some guys who have been there, done that. He’s the only one who’s been part of team success.”

In the meantime, there’s also the possibility of the reawakened sleeping giant at IU with new coach Kelvin Sampson. It would be nice to see the rivalry return to the Purdue-IU rivalry.

“I think it will come back when both of us are consistently at the top of the Big Ten,” Painter said.

Can’t happen soon enough. Get that transition game going, Matt Painter.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to Benner also has a blog,

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