I never truly believed. I looked at the roster coming off of last season’s 30 wins and just didn’t see how this year’s team could compare. I looked at Dakota Mathias and wondered who would match his combination of shooting and perimeter defense. I looked at P.J. Thompson and wondered who could match his steadiness under pressure and his ability to hit the big shoot. I looked at Isaac Haas and his gigantic body and wondered if anyone (or anything) could replace his ability to score down low almost at will and his ability to impact the game on defense. Finally, I looked at Vincent Edwards and wondered who could replace his all around versatility and solid play. I didn’t think these pieces could be replaced or replicated. It turns out I was right in that respect but I was asking the wrong questions.
The question wasn’t who could replace any of these players or who would be the next Dakota Mathias, the question I should’ve been asking was what players on the roster would step up to play bigger roles. The answer there, it turns out, was nearly everyone. You look around this team and you see the improvement at every position. And I don’t just mean from last season to this season, though that improvement is certainly there, I mean from the start of the season to now. Look at the maturation of guys like Trevion Williams, Matt Haarms, Ryan Cline, and Nojel Eastern. Nojel Eastern particularly stands out to me. Sure, he still can’t shoot a three to save his life, but he doesn’t have to. He can now find his shot going to the rim and opposing teams have to be very reticent about fouling to send him to the line in crunch time. That’s something you couldn’t say during the first half of the season. Kudos to Nojel for putting in the work to get better but also to the coaches and managers who helped him every step of the way.
Plus, let’s not forget ‘Gritty’ Grady Eifert who has been a revelation this season. Never in my wildest scenarios for this season did I imagine Eifert receiving MVP chants during a game. Eifert is the epitome of hustle, hard work, grit, and knowing how to get the absolute best out of yourself. It was inspiring to watch him this season.
On Saturday as this team won the Big Ten and added to Purdue’s conference leading record of 24 Big Ten titles I was in awe. This team wasn’t supposed to be here. After losing four senior starters just last season this team was picked to finish in the middle of the pack and those picks were largely based on the fact that Carsen Edwards was on the team. Without him, the story went, this team didn’t have anything. While there’s a certain truth to that, Edwards has certainly won games for Purdue this season, there’s also truth to the fact that without the growth of the rest of the team around him it’s likely that Purdue does finish in the middle of the pack of the conference.
The one constant throughout these years has been Head Coach Matt Painter. I’ll admit at times this season I grumbled and groused at some of the decisions. If you could read our Hammer and Rails group chat you’d realize two things; 1. There’s a reason I say things on there instead of twitter and 2. Sometimes it’s better to just say nothing at all. I’ve been a fan of Painter since his hiring. He was always extremely helpful to The Paint Crew and was always looking out for the fans. This season was one of his best coaching jobs of his career. He took a roster that no one thought would contend for a conference title, and many (me) thought would have to fight for an NCAA Tournament birth, and turned them into conference champions awaiting a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
What a difference just three months can make. On December 15, 2018 Purdue lost to Notre Dame in what can only be described as the low point of their season. They sat at 6-5 overall and the rest of the college basketball world wrote them off. On March 15, 2019 exactly three months later, Purdue sits at 23-8 and will play on the third day of the Big Ten Tournament after receiving the coveted double bye. No matter what happens in the conference tournament or the NCAAs this team will go down in the books as champions. There are still plenty of games left to play and plenty of opportunities to make history but no one will ever be able to take away that 24th Big Ten Championship. I may not have believed in this team, but they proved me wrong yet again. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.