If you follow men’s college basketball at all, you’re certainly aware that my alma mater’s team was on the wrong end of an upset last weekend. It’s not hyperbolic to call it the worst upset in NCAA Tournament history. The team won its conference by three games and then went on to win the conference tournament for good measure. It has the National Player of the Year frontrunner. It reached a #1 ranking in the polls for a large portion of the season. But it got embarrassed in the first round by a team that only made the tournament because the rightful participant wasn’t eligible. Was this a successful season?
Purdue’s success (or lack)
Most Purdue fans seem to say “no”. I’m one of them, maybe. Purdue has more Big Ten titles than any other team. It’s nice to get another, but NCAA Tournament success has been more elusive. My parents hadn’t met the last time Purdue was in the men’s Final Four. In 18 seasons as head coach, Matt Painter has reached the Sweet 16 six times (including one Elite Eight appearance). Excluding 2020 which had no tournament (although it’s likely that Purdue might have missed the cut), Purdue is twice as likely to reach the Sweet 16 than to miss the tournament field. That sounds pretty successful.
But in the last three years, Purdue has lost to double-digit seeds — twice in the first round! Even though you have to earn a high seed to have the opportunity to get embarrassed like that, it’s hard to call that a success.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Purdue was picked pre-season to finish in the middle of the conference. Instead, they went 21-1 in November through January. They not only won the conference outright, but by the largest margin in nearly a decade. In that context, it seems like a successful season.
That team down south
Indiana’s men’s basketball fans are asking the same question. The Indianapolis Star ran an article (subscribers only) asking “[w]as IU basketball’s season a success?” Like Purdue, IU had a dominant post player who put up historic numbers. Unlike Purdue, IU was predicted to win the conference (they finished in a tie for second). Unlike Purdue, IU didn’t win a regular season or tournament title. Neither the coach nor the star player received individual awards. Sounds like a disappointing season.
On the other hand, they lost a key player to Injury early in the season and a second one missed several games early in conference play. A team that started January on a three-game skid and 4-6 in the last 10 games pulled together to sweep their rivals (the aforementioned three-game-margin conference champs). That’s something to celebrate. And they made it to the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2016 after missing four in a row (they’d probably have made the 2020 tournament, had it happened). But this is a program that has won the NCAA Tournament five times, so making the second round is not particularly great by historical standards.
Was the 2022–23 season a success? As Tyler Tachman wrote in the Star,
The reality is the intricacies of this season make it difficult to put a singular, binding label on it right now. It is not an undoubted success, nor a clear failure. Perhaps it is somewhere in between.
What is success?
When I was 12, my Little League team went undefeated through the regular season. In the finals, we faced a team that had gone winless in the regular season but got hot at the end. They ended up beating us. Were they better? Probably not. We went on to win the district tournament — clobbering the team that was the consensus favorite — and finished with a 19-1 record. But we lost the league tournament.
Any single-elimination tournament involves a lot of luck. One bad night and you’re done. How often is the tournament champion truly the “best” team? You have to be good to win, but you also have to be very lucky. The former you can control, the latter you can’t.
If pressed, I’d choose having long-term success over a few good days in a row. Of course, I’d rather have both. As Purdue fans “sit in it” (as Matt Painter said) this off season, we have to think about what our expectations are and how we define success.
There’s no right answer here. I doubt we’ll even reach a general consensus. Nobody wants to lose, but maybe we’d all be a lot better off if we (meaning the broader culture) stopped using narrow, short-term definitions of success.
Ed. note: for further thoughts on this, I recommend Doug Masson’s “That Purdue loss” and “Indiana Basketball: 2022–23” posts (plus their comments). I repurposed my comment on the former for parts of this post.