WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – They probably should know better by now but they keep challenging Dakota Mathias.
Purdue has possibly the best collection of 3-point shooters in college basketball with four starters hitting better than 40 percent from long range, led by Mathias. And there’s a fifth player who comes off the bench who is just a tick below 40 percent.
So, no surprise, those shooters have engaged in a few amiable competitions of shooting skills.
“Oh yeah, we do that all the time,” Mathias said as he sat in the Boilermakers’ practice gym the morning after a recent win over Michigan.
“P.J. always thinks he can beat me but he never does,” Mathias said about his backcourt mate and roommate P.J. Thompson. “Ryan Cline, we have a lot of friendly games of H-O-R-S-E and things like that.”
The misses have been few and far between for Mathias and Purdue this season when it counts, too.
The 6-foot, 4-inch senior guard from Elida is averaging 12.3 points a game, leads the team in 3-pointers and assists, is shooting 46 percent on threes and appears to be headed for a spot on the All-Big Ten defensive team for a second season in a row.
The No. 3-ranked Boilermakers are 23-2 after beating Rutgers on Saturday and have won 19 games in a row.
Purdue was 27-8 last year, won the Big Ten regular season title and got to the Sweet 16 before losing to Kansas.
The Boilermakers were expected to be good this season but there were few predictions of this kind of success when Big Ten Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan, a first-team All American, left early for the NBA.
“Especially in the summer and fall a lot of people didn’t think we were going to be as good as we are because of that fact (Swanigan leaving),” Mathias said. “It’s understandable, but at the same time we have four seniors so there was a lot of experience coming back. I think we’re a very good team.”
That success has generated expectations that weren’t there two or three months ago. But Mathias says those are “all on the outside.”
“We see the stuff, we hear the stuff. But now it’s just up to us to play and not worry about that,” he said.
Purdue is a rarity in 21st century men’s college basketball with four senior starters. Good players don’t usually stay four years.
But 6-8 Vince Edwards (15.4 points a game), 7-2 Isaac Haas (14.8 points a game), Thompson (8.4 points a game) and Mathias are all on the four-year plan.
Mathias and the rest of Purdue’s recruiting class were targeted to address a glaring weakness on Boilermakers teams that finished 16-18 and 15-17 in 2013 and 2014. Those teams just didn’t shoot the ball very well.
While Purdue coach Matt Painter was recruiting Mathias and the rest of his seniors, his own team was clanking balls off rims at an alarming rate. When Mathias was averaging 28 points a game as a senior at Elida and breaking the school career scoring record, Purdue was 10th in the Big Ten in field goal percentage and eighth in 3-point shooting.
“That was one of the things that drew me to Coach Painter. He was very honest about it, that some of the guys they had weren’t playing the way they wanted to play. He wanted more shooting,” Mathias said.
“You can see that from the guys we have now. We have five guys shooting 40 percent on threes. That’s not something you see every day. It’s definitely something Coach Painter and the staff were looking for in recruiting.”
No wonder on the day Mathias signed in November 2013, Painter said, “I think he would play a lot for us right now.”
The transition to college was not quite that immediate, though. Challenges from illness, injuries and adjusting to college basketball in general kept Mathias in a back-up role his first two seasons at Purdue.
His breakthrough came last season when he averaged 9.7 points a game, led the team in three pointers and started every game.
Asked where his game has changed most in four years at Purdue, he said, “I play a lot more defense now,” and laughed. But he quickly amended that and said, “No, just my overall game on both ends of the court is better, just being more energetic and more aware of things on both ends of the court. The details have escalated.”
His attention to detail and ability to see what is going on around him in the moment on the court has earned him the familiar description of “a coach on the floor.”
In his case, though, it is more than just a cliché. He really does have the ability to dissect a game like a coach.
A teammate told the Lafayette Journal & Courier earlier this season that often when a player doesn’t understand something they’ll ask Mathias instead of seeking out a coach.
The short-term future for Mathias is all about Purdue and chasing an NCAA championship.
“I can’t believe it’s February already. It’s true how they say time flies. It seems like just yesterday I committed and I’ve got two more months of playing, hopefully. It’s been fun, especially these last six or seven weeks when we’ve been playing really well,” he said.
After that, he would like to play professionally somewhere next season.
And after that? The coach on the floor might end up being a coach on the bench.
Mathias is a business management major, but says it’s very possible coaching is in his future.
“I’m still thinking about that (coaching). That’s probably a route I’m going to take,” he said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.