Before Purdue donned the scarlet letter in March — losing three straight years in the NCAA Tournament to a double-digit seed and becoming only the second No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 — the program was one rebound away from the Final Four. The 2019 Boilermakers lost to eventual national champion Virginia after a miraculous buzzer-beater sent the game to overtime. What’s stayed with Purdue coach Matt Painter is not the fickleness of March, but how close that team came.
“We scored 99 points against Tennessee in an overtime game to get to the Elite Eight,” Painter says. “Like, you’ve got to score.”
Painter has reflected this offseason on what’s gone wrong the last three tournaments. Turnovers are the common thread between the three losses, but the point totals bother him too. Purdue has ranked 26th, second and 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency the past three seasons, yet the Boilers averaged only 61 points in regulation in losses to North Texas (2021), Saint Peter’s (2022) and Fairleigh Dickinson (2023).
It was obvious to Painter that he needed more speed and athleticism. He hopes Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones and freshman Myles Colvin will help in those areas. But there’s also one player Painter believes he hasn’t utilized enough: third-year sophomore big man Trey Kaufman-Renn. Painter is strongly considering starting the 6-foot-9 Kaufman-Renn — who was the team’s backup center last season — alongside reigning national player of the year Zach Edey.
“I think as a coach,” Painter says, “you’ve got to look back and say, even though you had success, do you have the utmost firepower, especially offensively, out there on the court? And in hindsight, I don’t believe that I did.”
Painter says preseason practices will determine whether he goes with the two-big approach, but so far he has been evenly distributing the starting reps for the power forward slot between Kaufman-Renn, 6-6 senior Mason Gillis and 6-10 junior Caleb Furst.
Kaufman-Renn played alongside the 7-4 Edey some last December. Painter eventually determined that his best offensive lineup was using Gillis at the four for optimal floor spacing, and his best defensive lineup was with Furst in that spot. Painter has played two traditional, back-to-the-basket bigs together before — Caleb Swanigan played a lot of power forward in 2015-16 and 2016-17 — and he toyed with the idea of putting both Trevion Williams and Edey on the floor before the 2021-22 season. But with college basketball trending smaller and more skilled in recent years, Painter followed that direction.
He has rethought that approach this offseason.
“You’ve got to have a balance of using the analytics, but also your own personal experiences,” Painter says. “It’s like Tiger Woods changing his swing when he had the best swing maybe at the time in all of golf, but to get it to that elite level, you got to make some changes. That’s the way I kind of look at this.”
Painter has laid out for Kaufman-Renn what he must do defensively to play withh Edey. Kaufman-Renn has gotten leaner, increasing his foot speed to be able to chase around smaller fours. He can’t be in drop pick-and-roll coverage with Edey on the floor and must hedge ball screens. If he can handle the defensive challenge, Painter can unleash his two best scorers on offense.
Though Kaufman-Renn averaged only 4.5 points per game last season, he was second to Edey among Purdue’s rotation players in points per 40 minutes (16.0). During Purdue’s trip to Europe this summer, while Edey was playing for Team Canada in the FIBA World Cup, Kaufman-Renn averaged a team-best 18 points per game.
“His ability to score is very unique,” Painter says. “And he can play in between. He can play in the high post. He can play in the low post.”
What’s most important is how he fits next to Edey. “Eighty percent of our game is how each one of those guys coexists with Zach,” Painter says. “The guy that has to adjust is that four. Zach doesn’t have to adjust.”
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The sample size is small (199 possessions), but there’s hope from Edey and Kaufman-Renn’s minutes together last season. The Boilermakers scored 1.14 points per possession and allowed just 0.86 PPP, per Hooplens.com. Purdue shot just 26.7 percent from 3 when those two played together — but made up for it by shooting 61.5 percent inside the arc and grabbing 40.4 percent of its misses. Both marks would have led college basketball.
The Boilers shot only 32.2 percent from 3 last season despite ranking third nationally in shot selection, per ShotQuality.com. The attention Edey demands is always going to generate great looks for everyone else.
The logical concern is that going bigger hurts the spacing and makes life more difficult for Edey. Kaufman-Renn needs to at least be willing to take these shots:
Kaufman-Renn — who went 5-for-20 from behind the arc as a freshman — should take wide-open 3s in rhythm but doesn’t need to shoot them at a high volume. When his man sags, he can go to work in isolation, using a Barkley dribble to get to his post-up.
Notice how Edey’s man stays attached in those clips. Kaufman-Renn knows help isn’t coming from that direction. A defense’s only option is to help from the top, and that’s an easy read.
Kaufman-Renn needs to deliver post feeds to Edey. He has shown he’s more than capable; Painter’s most utilized set with those two on the floor was a simple high-low entry out of horns set where Edey sets a ball screen, rolls into a post-up and Kaufman-Renn passes it from the top of the key.
Painter will go to a set like this endlessly if defenses can’t stop it.
“I call it killing the dragon,” he says. “Like, we’re gonna keep coming back to it.”
The biggest adjustment Kaufman-Renn needs to make is getting used to not posting up frequently when Edey’s on the floor. Purdue likes to dive its four man when Edey posts.
This is where Furst excels and knows his place. If the four man doesn’t get the ball, he ends up in the dunker spot. Furst rarely posts up, so he has no problem leaving the block once the ball goes back out. Kaufman-Renn tends to stay there and post up when the ball is reversed.
Painter wants Kaufman-Renn to run into a ball screen when the ball goes back out to the wing. Kaufman-Renn’s defender then has to make a decision. Is he going to stay in the paint to help with Edey or follow?
“When they sag off and they really help with Zach, you can’t set enough ball screens,” Painter says. “Because if he’s deep and he’s helping, now you’ve got their four in a deep drop and now he’s popping out of that or short roll. And Trey’s really good at that short roll.”
Kaufman-Renn is attempting to reprogram into more of a stretch four’s mindset this preseason. That’s tough because he’s at his best with his back to the basket. He’ll still get his post-up opportunities; they’ll just come early. He’s usually going to beat Edey down the floor in transition, and that’s when Painter is good with Kaufman-Renn going straight to the block, temporarily reversing roles with Edey. Edey is an easy target if two defenders converge on Kaufman-Renn.
Kaufman-Renn can get some easy buckets because of the defense’s undivided attention on Edey. Purdue ranked third nationally in offensive rebounding rate last season, and Painter thinks his team can be even better by playing more two-big lineups. Kaufman-Renn is going to have some free runs to the boards as teams try to wrestle with Edey, who led the nation in offensive rebounding rate.
Kaufman-Renn is still going to be the backup center, and Gillis and Furst are worthy of playing lots of minutes too. But if the two-big lineup works and Kaufman-Renn and Edey develop chemistry, Purdue could start and finish games with both of them on the court. Maybe that makes the difference when the Boilermakers get to March and have a game when shots aren’t falling.
Painter doesn’t feel the need to drastically change his approach — his team, after all, did win the Big Ten regular-season and tournament crowns and ranked fifth on KenPom on Selection Sunday — but he’s willing to tweak some things.
“You’ve got to look in the mirror, but you can’t turn around and do crazy s— then,” he says. “You just can’t (go), OK, this didn’t work. No, this did work. Just because you didn’t execute something or you played poorly, there’s a lot of data saying that does work.”
Purdue is the only team in college basketball to go undefeated in the nonconference each of the last two years. When the Boilers struggled offensively late last season, the early success made it difficult to change what had worked. But what’s best for his team in March will now be in the back of Painter’s mind.
“You don’t get your ribbons for what you do in November and December,” he says. “You get it for what you do in March. I’ve got to do better and we’ve got to do better.”
We’ve seen a team lose to a No. 16 seed, return most of its core the following season and win the national title. For Virginia, one game-changer was De’Andre Hunter becoming a starter and assuming a much bigger role. An injury kept him out of the 2018 first-round loss to UMBC. Kaufman-Renn was available against Fairleigh Dickinson but played only eight minutes.
And here’s a fun bit of symmetrical trivia if Purdue pulls a Virginia. What year was Hunter during that title-winning season?
A redshirt sophomore. Just like Trey Kaufman-Renn.
(Top photo: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)