After Purdue’s 88-80 loss to Notre Dame, Coach Matt Painter needed to do something. Purdue was just 6-5 at this point, having lost four of their last five games. There were no bad losses on the schedule, only neutral floor and road losses to quality opponents, but the Boilers were blowing leads and losing close games. Their bench was leaking points on one end and not scoring on the other.
So Coach Painter moved his junior transfer from Dartmouth into the starting lineup, pushing Matt Haarms back to the first off the bench spot he excelled at last year.
“He’s been great... We need that energy from him every single night. I think this has helped him kind of relax and find himself in the game,” Coach Painter told the press after their dominating win over then-ranked Iowa.
Purdue has won all three games with Haarms coming off the bench, their first three game win streak of the year. While playing at Mackey Arena has certainly helped, there’s no denying that Matt Haarms move out of the starting lineup has sparked something in himself and his young teammates.
Coach Painter has one of the most complex jigsaw pieces in the B10 when it comes to figuring out his bench rotation. He plays ten players. Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline, his two stars, and Nojel Eastern Grady Eifert are the only four players averaging over 20 minutes a night.
The rest of Coach Painter’s roster is a collection of extreme youth, and players who are learning how to play at the D1 level. Grady Eifert came to Purdue as a walk-on, Evan Boudreaux sat out an entire season last year after playing two years of Ivy League ball, Aaron Wheeler and Sasha Stefanovic both red shirted last year, and Eric Hunter Jr. and Trevion Williams are both true freshman.
For the most part, Coach Painter’s bench struggled mightily in the first 11 games of the season, particularly scoring the basketball.
In the last 3 games, every player on the bench has outperformed their previous averages significantly, with all five players increasing their scoring load. Eric Hunter Jr. was averaging 2 ppg a game for the first 11 games, he’s averaged 8.7 points per game the last three. Aaron Wheeler has gone from 4.6 ppg to 7. William who was barely playable the first few games of the season, has scored 13 points in the last three games while playing just 24 minutes.
Matt Haarms himself has found a new groove on offense, consistently filling the third-scorer role on a team that relies on big men who can take advantage of post match-ups. He was averaging 7.5 points per game the first 11 games, but has scored 10 ppg off the bench, including back to back games of 14 and 12 points.
As a whole, those five Purdue bench players are averaging 14.8 more points per game in the last three than their average the first 11 games. This is significant for a team that’s lost four games by a combined 19 points.
All of a sudden Purdue’s young guys aren’t looking so young, and Coach Painter’s able to play his younger guys more and more. Younger guys who are generally more athletic than their counterparts in the starting lineup.
For as good as Matt Haarms has been, the ascension of Eric Hunter Jr. and Aaron Wheeler has been a revelation for a team that needed another lead guard to take care of the ball and be a threat and someone that can knock down outside shots.
Hunter Jr. exploded against Ohio, scoring 13 points, and knocking down 2 of his 3 three-point attempts after scoring just 2 points over the previous 5 games.
But the biggest difference-maker has been the production of redshirt freshman Aaron Wheeler, a 6’9” pogo stick and Purdue’s best and most versatile athlete, and his ability to knock down the long ball. Wheeler looked lost and unsure of what to do with the ball at the start of the season. He was good for a put back dunk every other game, but wasn’t producing much more than that. Now he’s one of Purdue’s most reliable three-point threats, absolutely scorching the nets in his last 7 games, making 10 of his 19 three-point attempts.
Coach Painter needed this. Purdue lost four seniors last year and those seniors took a ton of points and consistency with them. While Carsen Edwards might be the best scorer in the nation, as the Texas game showed, no matter how great he is, he can’t do it all on his own.
Against Texas, Edwards scored 40 points in an all-time performance but the bench got thoroughly outplayed scoring just 7 points. It cost Purdue a quality road win.
But the bench appears to have turned a corner. When Edwards sits and Coach Painter goes to the bench, they’re no longer bleeding points.
“We’re not losing much when we sub. At times we’re getting better.”
Now the new bench will be tested in Purdue’s toughest test left on the schedule, against a Michigan St. team on the road that Coach Painter called the most physical team he’s seen in his 14 years in the B10.
Purdue shouldn’t be expected to win in East Lansing, but it’s a chance for the young guys to test themselves on the road and gain more confidence for when the Spartans come to Mackey three weeks later.