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Going North, Dakota

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Mathias has turned up the defense his junior year and it’s lifted the Boilers ceiling.

NCAA Basketball: Western Illinois at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago that one of the major questions going into the season was who would fill the defensive void left by former defensive player of the year and The Captain, Rapheal Davis.

Mostly, it seemed, the weight of this gap would fall on two players shoulders. Vincent Edwards, the captain of the unheralded team, and a bit of do everything forward who could shift between the wing and the post. His length and smarts would make up for any lack of lateral quickness, and he went into the off season with a renewed focus on becoming a plus defender.

The other, and perhaps bit of a dark horse, but also most natural fit to replace Davis’s perimeter defense was Basil Smotherman. Basil came to Purdue as the fourth ranked recruit in the state. His freshman year, he played nearly 20 minutes per game and was something of a revelation. He’s, frankly, the kind of athletic wing Purdue has not reliably had over the years. His hips are fluid, his arms long, he looks like he wants to be a defensive stopper. However, his minutes dropped all the way to 12 minutes a game his sophomore year after the influx of talent that accompanied the 2015 recruiting class.

He decided, instead of adding to the log jam on the wing, he would redshirt his junior year. Even last year, the fit seemed pretty reasonable. Slide Davis out of the lineup after the 15-16 season, slide Smotherman into the defensive stopper role and play ball.

The season hasn’t exactly progressed this way, and it’s for the better. Vincent Edwards was the starting 3 to start the year, and amidst some sloppy play, he was benched in favor of the oncoming train of The Truth Carsen Edwards. Basil has only played 15 minutes a game.

Rapheal’s absence has mostly been healed by the guy starting next to him last year, Dakota Mathias.

Dakota came into his freshman year ailing from Mono and deviated septums, and miscellaneous other things that prevented him from properly working out his body. His sophomore year, he made strides, but was still too slow laterally, and got too far behind his man on screens. He was a solid defender off the ball, with really good hands, a high-iq, and a pretty good motor. But he wasn’t this.

You could see it as early as the intra-squad scrimmages. Dakota’s body wasn’t the same. He was thinner, laterally he was back and forth, on the tips of his toes, staying with and tormenting Vincent Edwards every time he got the ball. He kept going at Vincent on the defensive end. He was balanced, still with great hands, and smartly swiping at every dribble with his chest up and staying in front. It was beautiful.

Dakota’s minutes have jumped from 19 a game his first two years to 29.2 minutes a game, just behind Biggie’s for most on the team.

Let’s not make a mistake. Caleb Swanigan is the most improved player in the conference. He has turned from a mistake-prone freshman to a sophomore phenom. Dakota Mathias might be the second most improved player in the conference. The offense was always there, but it’s even more there now. He has the 35th highest offensive rating in the nation according to kenpom, and he’s done it by having a 20.6 assist rate on his way to 3.8 assists a game and knocking down his shots from everywhere. He has the 49th highest effective field goal rate in the country, knocking down better than 50% of his threes. Which is absurd considering he’s taking nearly 4 and a half threes a game.

His offensive game is what makes his defensive revelation so important. Dakota still might not be a better possession for possession defender than Basil, but now that it’s a conversation, now that Dakota can guard anyone on the perimeter, Purdue gets more and more of his offense.

When Vincent was moved to the bench, it was about his sloppy play. But it was also about getting another guard and spacing on offense. It was also about Coach Matt Painter’s confidence that Dakota was up for the task of taking on the opposing team’s best perimeter player. This will get harder as Purdue enters B10 play, but Dakota has worked his ass off to change his physical limitations to keep up with the better athletes in the league.

For the last few years, Purdue’s team has struggled with matching up to teams. They’ve struggled because they lacked the two-way players capable of going back and forth with the big boys. Now, with Biggie’s monsterification, PJ’s continual growth, Basil’s improved shot and athleticism, Vincent Edwards versatility, Carsen Edwards coming to campus, and Dakota’s emergence as a defensive-plus player, the best players for Purdue aren’t merely specialists. They are both well-rounded and dangerous, without the glaring weaknesses that were on the floor the last few years.

Coach Painter and his players get all the credit. He’s recruited to fill in the holes on his roster, and his players have expanded to fill the rest. There’s no greater example of this than Mathias.

Dakota isn’t just a glue guy anymore. He’s double-sided tape and in contention for a spot on one of the All B10 teams.