- Associated Press - Friday, March 17, 2017

MILWAUKEE (AP) - It could have gone either way, really. Just three short years ago, Purdue was in bad shape, and the questions about Matt Painter were growing in frequency.

With his future in the balance, Painter recruited his way to a turnaround - one player at a time.

Fresh off his first victory in the NCAA Tournament in five years, Painter will try to coach Purdue into the Sweet 16 on Saturday night against Iowa State. The Boilermakers haven’t made it to the second weekend of the tourney since 2010, Painter’s fifth season in charge of his alma mater.

“Off the court, especially, he gets it,” forward Vince Edwards said Friday. “He remembers what it was once like to be a college player, be in our position. Lot of times when we have problems on or off the court, we’re allowed to talk to him and he’s really open about it. That’s a good relationship that coaches build with their players.

“And then on the court, he just tries to help any way he can. If he sees something, he’ll let you know and keep his Xs and Os sharp. He lets us know if he sees openings. He does a really good job for us.”

Painter played for Gene Keady and spent a year as his associate head coach before taking over in April 2005. The Boilermakers went 9-19 in his first year in charge before beginning a run of six consecutive seasons in the NCAA Tournament with at least 22 wins.

Then everything fell apart. The Boilermakers went 16-18 in 2012-13 and 15-17 the following season.

If the losing had continued, there is no doubt Painter would have lost his job eventually. But he got the program back on track by finding more of what he wanted on the recruiting trail.

“I didn’t think we had enough guys that were about winning,” Painter said after Purdue’s practice on Friday. “Guys will be about shots, guys will be about minutes. If you just get some guys that are unconditional and just want to win - too many people are asking about who is in my position or not in my position. When you sign those guys and they never ask those questions, they just want the opportunity, they just want to play and they’re about Purdue winning, we had to get to that. We had to get - and get to a more skilled guy.”

Edwards, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and 7-foot-2 center Isaac Hayes, four key players on this year’s team, helped the Boilermakers return to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, but they lost to Cincinnati in the first round. Caleb Swanigan, a double-double machine and one of the most touted recruits in school history, joined the program last season.

“You got to figure out for yourself what’s at their core, and that’s what we tried to do,” Painter said. “And I really believe less is more. Right now we have eight guys in a rotation, but we have the right eight guys. And recruiting, it’s more difficult. … It’s hard. It really is to try to get things figured out. You can see if guys can run and jump and play, but you don’t see the adversity set in, who are they when the adversity sets in.”

Purdue (26-7), which won the Big Ten regular-season title this year for the first time since 2010, faced a stiff challenge from Vermont in the first round and held off the Catamounts for an 80-70 victory. It got the Boilermakers to 26 wins in consecutive seasons for only the third time in school history - all under Painter.

That one little losing spell seems like a long time ago now.

“The job he’s done at Purdue I think has been outstanding. … He’s done a really good job there,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “He’s obviously one of the best coaches in the country.”

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For more AP college basketball coverage: https://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Jay Cohen can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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