Year number 10 presents a crossroads of sorts for Purdue coach Matt Painter.
After taking over the program in 2005 after a season as associate head coach (Gene Keady's swan song), Painter built the Boilermakers into a conference power over the next 7 seasons. Players such as Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore and Chris Kramer came to personify Boilermaker Basketball under Painter: Hard-working guys, guys who bought into Painter's system of playing together, guys who won with heart and hustle and smarts as much as they did with talent.
But Boiler Ball as of late has fallen on hard times. After 6 straight NCAA tournament appearances - including back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 - Purdue has failed to make the big dance for two straight years, in part because players of the post-Hummel days had more potential than they have had hustle and heart.
Which makes the arrival of freshman wing Dakota Mathias the X Factor for Purdue Basketball this coming season.
Mathias is crucial for the Boilers in so many ways. First of all, he can shoot. As a senior at Elida, Ohio, Mathias shot 48% from three-point range. For a program that shot 32.7% as a team and had no one who played meaningful minutes come close to 40% from behind the arc (leading returnee Kendall Stephens shot 37% from long range), Purdue can benefit with having a true perimeter threat.
As good as he can shoot the ball, he is equally dangerous as a passer. In an interview with Hammer and Rails, Painter called the 6-4 Mathias the "best passer we've had in 10 years. Without question". If that is true, look for Mathias to have an enormous impact on the Boilermaker offense. His ability to shoot will draw defenders out from the post, where 7' A.J. Hammons has been wildly inconsistent over the last two seasons. It's easy to envision Hammons putting up significantly better, if not more consistent, production with Mathias getting him the ball in position to score.
But for all the physical tools and skills that Mathias brings to West Lafayette, the most important ingredient he'll add to Purdue Basketball is his attitude. Painter raved to the Lafayette Journal and Courier about Mathias work ethic in an interview during the summer. Not an elite athlete, Mathias has earned his way into playing in the Big Ten by putting in the hours. He not only holds himself accountable, but communicates to his teammates as well the importance of working to get better.
Will Purdue make it back to the NCAA Tournament? Too early to tell at this point. But if they do, Dakota Mathias will likely be a major catalyst in making it happen.