Purdue’s experienced hands hope for deep NCAA tourney run
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue guard Dakota Mathias prefers old-school basketball.
Over the last four seasons he has seen how coach Matt Painter still wins with a traditional inside-out offense, how the program’s “play hard” moto means something and why digging down on defense matters. Mathias and the Boilermakers’ other three senior starters want to show NCAA Tournament fans that basic fundamentals and experience are always in style, perhaps especially so with the sport under a cloud of scandal.
“I think we’re an example of everything that’s right with college basketball,” Mathias said. “We have four seniors staying in school, getting their degrees, playing the game the right way and never getting in trouble.”
With the one-and-done parade holding steady, salacious scandals tainting some of the country’s most powerful programs and an ongoing FBI investigation threatening to overshadow the sport’s marquee event, the Boilermakers (28-6) are a refreshing throwback.
Here, the pro aspirations of Mathias, Vincent Edwards, Isaac Haas and P.J. Thompson have been put on hold temporarily as they focus on teamwork and chase overall goals.
Here, they play off of each other’s strengths, figured out their weaknesses and developed the kind of toughness and camaraderie only time can create — a bond seemingly non-existent at so many big-time schools where revolving rosters have become the norm.
After earning a No. 2 seed, the school’s highest in two decades, the close-knit Boilers are now studying Friday’s opponent, 15th-seeded Cal State Fullerton (20-11).
It’s everything Painter hoped for when he recruited this group.
“It’s about growth and development and getting better together and getting a degree and going on to play pro basketball,” Painter said. “I think this group will be the model when it comes to future classes for us, outside the one with (Robbie) Hummel, E’Twaun (Moore) and (JaJuan) Johnson.”
All Painter did was follow the model of mentor and former Purdue coaching great Gene Keady. He primarily recruited Indiana and the neighboring states, kept the home-grown talent on campus and never paid attention to recruiting rankings, poll numbers or individual awards. Instead, they worked tirelessly on development.
Haas, the 7-foot-2 center from Alabama and the offensive cornerstone, was the only player in the class widely regarded as a top-100 recruit. In time, Mathias emerged as a proficient 3-point specialist and the team’s defensive catalyst, Edwards emerged as one of the nation’s most versatile players, and Thompson, of Indianapolis, turned into a 3-point shooting point guard who rarely makes mistakes.
Together, they’ve scored more than 5,000 points, grabbed more than 2,000 rebounds and had more than 1,100 assists. Haas and the two Ohio prep players — Edwards and Mathias — are all members of the school’s 1,000-point club.
They’ve won at every Big Ten venue during their career, never finished worse than third in league play, won a school record 62 home games and went 5-1 against rival Indiana.
With two wins weekend, the Boilermakers would break school records for most victories in a single season, back-to-back seasons (57), back-to-back-to-back seasons (83) and match the second-highest victory total over four seasons (104).
But the most impressive part may be how they responded when 2016-17 national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan left early for the NBA after leading Purdue to its first outright Big Ten title in 21 years.
The defending champs actually performed better this season — winning 19 straight at one point and five of their last six heading into tourney play.
“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Haas said. “We’ve played some pretty good basketball this year, there’s no denying that.”
But after last year’s Sweet 16 run ended with an embarrassing 32-point loss to Kansas in the regional semifinals, the Boilermakers head to Detroit even hungrier.
Despite producing one of the best seasons in school history, they finished second to Michigan State in the regular season, then lost to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament title game and found out Sunday they failed to get their first No. 1 seed since 1994.
“You could say that,” Edwards said when asked if they feel their resume is missing something. “Definitely coming close and not getting either-or hurts. You’ve just got to keep going. It should motivate you to play in March any day. But that (missing out twice) motivates you even more.”
The last goal is taking Purdue to its first Final Four since 1980.
“It would be huge, exciting. It’s what the fans want,” Mathias said. “It’s a storied program and they deserve it.”