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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press It took a midseason transformation for Carsen Edwards and No. 13 Purdue to win 17 of their final 20 games to capture an unlikely Big Ten title and enter the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 2 seed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 1:00 am

Big Ten Tournament

Painter fired up the Boilers

Have won 17 of 20 since coach lit into them after loss to Irish

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Big Ten Tournament

Purdue vs. Penn State or Minnesota

Where: United Center, Chicago

When: 6 p.m. Friday

Records: Purdue (23-8), Minnesota (19-12), Penn State (14-17)

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 1380 AM

WEST LAFAYETTE -- “You have to get over yourself, and it's a real hard thing to do.”

That was Matt Painter's assessment to the media of what needed to change for Purdue on Dec. 15. That day, the Boilermakers had turned in a listless performance in an 88-80 Crossroads Classic loss against a Notre Dame team that would go on to finish last in the ACC.

The defeat dropped the Boilers' record to 6-5 and led Painter to publicly -- and privately -- chastise his players for an insufficient commitment to team basketball. It was a wake-up call for a team that was struggling to find its way after losing four starters from 2018's run to the Sweet 16.

“(Painter) definitely said that to us,” center Matt Haarms said. “I think that was an important part of this team turning around, learning to play together, learning to be a unit, learning to be a family.”

Nearly three months later, Painter's wake-up call seems to have been an unmitigated success.

Since that loss to Notre Dame, the No. 13 Boilermakers have won 17 of 20 games, catapulting an inexperienced team to a share of the Big Ten title and a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which starts today in Chicago. In those three months, the Boilers (23-8) have gained significant confidence in each other, a mindset that should make them a dangerous NCAA Tournament team.

The changes began in the days immediately following the loss to the Irish.

When the Boilermakers watched film of the defeat, coaches made sure to emphasize what Purdue had done well, rather than focusing on the negative.

As the players watched, it became clear effort wasn't the problem, but their execution needed to improve late in games to get them over the hump.

“It was more of just being able to close out those games down the stretch,” said senior forward Grady Eifert, a Fort Wayne native. “We were able to reflect on those things (we did well) and it got us into a much better place. We just stayed positive in that time because we knew we were right on the cusp of turning it around. It was just a matter of when.”

The Boilermakers' next game after the loss to Notre Dame was a home matchup against Ohio. The Boilermakers played one of their most complete games to that point, winning 95-67 and shooting 57 percent from the field.

It was an exciting victory and it kicked off a particularly impressive stretch of 11 wins in 12 games, the only loss coming in East Lansing against then-No. 6 Michigan State.

As Eifert said, however, that stretch did not come out of nowhere. The Boilermakers had been knocking on the door for a while, improving rapidly thanks in large part to a brutal early-season schedule.

The nonconference schedule Painter put together for this season included true road games against three Power Five opponents, two of which -- Florida State and Virginia Tech -- came into the game in the Top 20. The Boilermakers led late in all three games, but lost them all by combined 11 points. 

For a team that had to replace four starters and work a handful of freshmen into prominent roles, the early-season gauntlet helped illustrate where certain players could help and the areas that still needed improvement. That schedule, plus the dressing-down following the Notre Dame loss, helped the new-look Boilermakers grow up quickly.

“We lost four seniors that had such a defined role,” Eifert said. “We were kind of looking for answers early on, who's going to be this type of player, who's going to be that type of player? It just gives credit to our schedule early on because we (figured it out) against some really good teams.

“I think that just kind of showed our maturity moving forward.”

Part of Painter's comments after the Notre Dame game concerned players struggling to fit into their roles. Some of the younger players were having trouble with the transition from high school stars to role players with the Boilers and it was keeping Purdue from being a cohesive unit. 

As the season has gone on, those roles have become increasingly well-defined and young players like Aaron Wheeler, Trevion Williams and Eric Hunter Jr. have contributed in a variety of ways beyond scoring, although all three can provide scoring punch if need be. 

After Purdue beat Northwestern to clinch a share of the Big Ten title on Saturday, Painter gushed about how far the team had come since December.

“More than anything our guys improved, our guys got better,” said the coach, who captured his third Big Ten regular-season title. “We've got some young guys that had to grow up and play off the bench and play a role.

“There's a lot of selfishness that comes because you're young and you want to play and you don't play very much, but our guys were really professional, they were really good about it.”

In other words, the Boilermakers got over themselves.

dsinn@jg.net