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NCAA Tournament 2017: Third-Year Saviors

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The Four Juniors who saved Purdue’s program.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Purdue vs Vermont James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

On February 20, 2014 the Boilermaker basketball team would lose to #14 Michigan St. 94-79. This loss would be the first of 7 straight losses to finish the 2014 season.

The Boilermakers, for the second straight year, would not be playing basketball that March. Secretly, we as fans were all fine with that. The team had become something of a duty, there was no joy in the kind of product being put on the floor. But what is it they say? It’s darkest before the dawn.

For Purdue basketball, that could not be more true.

The light came in the form of four 2015 freshman: P. J. Thompson, Dakota Mathias, Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards. (The fifth freshman, Jacquil Taylor, through injury after injury, has yet to really step on the court in any meaningful way for the Boilers yet.)

While Caleb Swanigan takes most the spotlight, deservedly so, it is these four that are the backbone, the steady essence that has not only righted the ship, but kept it sailing towards shore. They do it quietly without fuss. Case in point, Thursday, when they got the monkey off of Purdue’s back and won Purdue’s first NCAA tournament game since 2012.

P. J. Thompson, the diminutive and starting point guard might have made the noisiest night by making the biggest shot to pull clear of Vermont. He ended up with 10 points, 2 assists, and 0 turnovers because that’s what guiding hands do in storms.

But did you know? Dakota Mathias was quietly a do-it-all assassin again? He put up 13 points on just 9 shots, knocking down three 3’s, while collecting 5 rebounds and 5 assists to just 1 turnover? This isn’t an aberration. According to kenpom, this was his tenth game of the year with at least an offensive rating of 150.

But the star, the MVP, was Vincent Edwards who started the game aggressive and hot and carried his all-around brilliance through each minute. He was 10 of 16 from the field for 21 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steals. Those defensive stats don’t do him justice. He was the best player on the court, and he was everywhere on defense.

Isaac Haas doesn’t really fit this narrative. At 7’2” there is nothing quiet about his game. He is the thing blocking out the sun, but he’s also the real X-factor for this team. A giant who is a mismatch against every other human on this planet. After struggling with foul trouble in the first half, he put up 8 points in the game and will be vital to Purdue’s chances going forward.

Three years ago these four juniors without a collective nickname came to the program as saviors. They helped bring March Madness games back to West Lafayette, now they’re bringing victories.

Here’s some quick hits on the game tonight:

  • Deonte Burton is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Watching him Thursday night in person, I was mesmerized by his pogo-stick jumping ability, his thickness, the ability of his to get up and move and attack and shoot. He gets a little carried away on drives and threw some passes away, but he’s a 6’5” bowling ball that is technically a guard but plays like a center on defense. Vincent Edwards will draw the assignment on him early, but Caleb’s bulk might be needed as well. It will be interesting who Burton will guard on defense. Getting him into foul trouble would go a long way in getting Purdue to the second week of the tournament.
  • Vincent Edwards has quietly been a monster in the tournament. His career averages now after 3 tourney games: 19.7 ppg, 3.7 assists, 8.7 rebounds. Again, a monster.
  • Can Cline get going? He hasn’t really played bad, he’s just not been a part of the offense. (Though, he’s always a positive on offense by creating space. This doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but if Cline is on the court, you can count on one defender not willing to help off his man.) But since he took over the starting role for Carsen Edwards, he’s just 3 of 11 from deep, is scoring 3 points a game, hasn’t had an assist in 3 of the last 4, and has scored more than 3 points in a game just once in the last 5 games.

Here’s my prediction: For the last two years, we’ve watched a team grow. On any game day, we have five or six guys capable of stepping up and being the best player on the court. This game? It’s gonna be the big man’s redemption. Look for Haas to get going early, draw fouls, and be aggressive. If he scores 15 points or more, we win.

And guess what? He will. Calling it now. Done.

Purdue 79, Iowa St. 72