Caleb Swanigan and a bunch of pretty good players.
That’s the popular narrative. The one you’ll probably hear from talking heads on your television, or from the opposing fans talking on the other side of the bar. It’s an easy one. Purdue, forever the grit and grind team, the one who has more glue guys than All-Americans, the school of Brian Cardinal and Chris Kramer, finally have a nationally recognized player. A sun that the rest of the team gravitates around, and that’s fine, but it’s also just plain wrong.
The Purdue Boilermakers have been ranked all year. They handled Wisconsin earlier in the year, took Villanova to the brink, and won at Maryland. They just beat a red-hot Iowa State team and are now in the Sweet 16. They didn’t do it because of one lonely star and a bunch of role-players. They did it because when you really look at this Purdue team, you realize that Swanigan might be the brightest, but he’s not the only star in their sky.
Let me introduce you to Vincent Edwards. Vincent has played in four NCAA tournament games now. He is averaging over 20 points, over 9 rebounds, and over 3 assists in those games. In Milwaukee, he was the best player that played in the Bradley Center all weekend. Too small a sample? Sure, how about, as a stretch-4 he’s capable of guarding anyone - literally. He’s got the length and versatility to contain quicker guards or a 6’5” bowling ball on a pogo stick like Deonte Burton. But what makes him really special, what shines most about him, is his offense.
He does everything well. Let’s get the counting stats out of the way. Edwards averaged 12.7 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.2 apg while shooting 49% from the field, a team best 83% from the free throw line, and 42.5% from three. He’s a stretch-4, who plays bigger and stronger than his slight frame would suggest, and who has quietly become an assassin from deep. He’s raised his 3-pt% from 32% as a freshman to 40% his sophomore year to 42.5% this year while taking over 100 3’s.
He unlocks everything for this team. He can play along Haas and Swanigan, allowing them to operate where their comfortable while grabbing offensive rebounds on 8.5% of misses - 389th best rate in the nation. He gets those rebounds by quickness and outworking teams. His offensive rebound and and-1 against Iowa State helped close off the Cyclone’s come back late in their match-up on Saturday.
But Vincent isn’t just hustle, he’s efficiency. He has the 230th best effective field goal% in the country, and the 198th highest true shooting%. He has the 121st highest offensive rating in the nation, and in conference play only, he was the 4th best offensive player in the B10. He also has the highest assist rate on the team while having the second lowest turnover rate despite a rough early start to the season.
His numbers aren’t just cute. They’re phenomenal. Not only does he allow Purdue to play every way they want to, he also scores from everywhere, and makes everyone around him better. Vincent Edwards is not, and I repeat, not just some role player.
He is a star.
Dakota Mathias is one of the most efficient scorers in the nation. He isn’t just a good shooter, he’s phenomenal. He’s made 71 of his 155 3-point attempts, that’s 46%, 28th best mark in the country. His offensive rating is 91st in the country. He makes his free throws at an 82% clip, and has been described as the best passer Coach Matt Painter has ever recruited. He also does a little of everything on offensive. He averages 9.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and 3.7 apg.
He is the unusual player who is just as dangerous off the ball, playing a secondary role as he is the primary ball handler. His pick and roll game with Caleb Swanigan has been a revelation this year. He finds his teammates in the right places at the right time. His assist rate was 17th best in conference play this year while averaging just a turnover and a half a game.
But the biggest change from the Dakota we’ve seen the last two years and this one is he’s gone from being a 19 minute a game player, to being second on the team in minutes at 31.8 per game. This has happened because Dakota Mathias completely altered his body in the off-season. Much like Caleb Swanigan, he’s lost weight, added quickness, and built stamina, but he just doesn’t make the same headlines. He should.
Because Dakota Mathias, one-time one-way player, has made himself into the BEST PERIMETER DEFENDER IN THE BIG TEN. That statement would have been laughable last year, but Dakota Mathias has went from defensive liability to a bona-fide lock down defender.
Do the math. Dakota Mathias is not only one of the best shooters in the nation, but also one of the best passers, and a threat everywhere on the floor. And oh yeah, now he’s also one of the best defenders.
Those aren’t the accolades of a role player.
He is a star.
Throw in Carsen Edwards ability to change a game, Isaac Haas’s ability to eclipse entire teams, PJ’s steady hand, Ryan Cline’s hot hand, and Spike’s March magic, this isn’t a team built around one star and a bunch of nice pieces.
This is a three-sun galaxy and absolute national championship contender, and they get a chance to shine brightest under the bright lights against number-1 seed Kansas tonight.
Don’t be surprised if they do, that’s what stars do.