WEST LAFAYETTE — When Purdue lost to Notre Dame on Dec. 15 for its fifth defeat in seven games, it would’ve been hard to imagine the Boilermakers competing for a Big Ten championship.
But that’s exactly where Matt Painter has his team after Sunday’s 73-63 win over Minnesota at Mackey Arena. The Boilermakers are now 9-2 in conference play, tied with No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Michigan State for the league lead.
Ask the Purdue players and they’ll tell you the reason for their ascension is Painter, who has led the Boilermakers to 311 wins and 10 NCAA Tournament bids in his 14 years as head coach.
“I think he’s excellent,” Purdue sophomore center Matt Haarms said. “He’s an amazing coach, and he’s done an amazing job.”
Painter lost four starters to graduation after last season’s 30-win campaign, but like his teams have done so often, they’ve overachieved this season. The veteran coach appears to have pushed all the right buttons to have his team in position to compete for the Big Ten regular-season title.
Purdue has won seven straight games and is up to No. 15 in the both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches poll.
“Obviously, he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” sophomore guard Nojel Eastern said. “I could be biased because I play for him … but he gives us the motivation that we can do anything. He’s a big reason why we’re on this run.”
All seven victories during the winning streak have been by double digits.
“I think it speaks to the toughness of this team, especially after not starting off so great,” Haarms said. “It’s really good to see the development, see the progress we’ve made. I think it’s only going to go up from here.”
The one constant Purdue has had all season is All-America candidate Carsen Edwards. The junior guard struggled in the first half Sunday before leading a 21-2 run that helped Purdue come back from 13 points behind. Edwards scored three baskets and two free throws and had an assist during the Boilermakers’ 13-0 spurt that took them from down 47-34 to tied at 47-apiece.
“Carsen needed the ball to go in,” Painter said. “He needed to feel better about himself. He’s a guy who can score in a variety of ways. When you struggle like he did, you need something to go in to get you going. His ability to get aggressive, make a pull-up, get fouled, make some plays at the rim, make a layup, really made him confident. And I think it gave our team confidence, too.”
As has been the case for almost all of Painter’s tenure at Purdue, the Boilermaker big men have contributed significantly to the team’s success. That wasn’t the case early in the season when Haarms was struggling to find his role on the team and freshman Trevion Williams was just trying to lose enough weight to crack the rotation.
On Sunday, Williams scored six of Purdue’s first eight points and finished with 16. Haarms, who has been coming off the bench since the Notre Dame loss, had his best day of his career with 15 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots in 22 minutes.
The two big men went 15-of-20 from the floor in the victory.
“I thought Trevion was great,” Painter said. “He really gave us a punch with scoring the ball around the rim.”
On Sunday, the “twin towers” played together for significant minutes for the first time this season. Painter’s decision helped Purdue outscore the Golden Gophers 39-16 over the final 14 minutes.
“We needed more size to go against their size,” Painter explained. “It felt like it made sense at that time to go there. We had to be able to stop them.”
Haarms insists when he and Williams are on the floor at the same time, he’s the power forward and Williams is the center. Either way, the big lineup was effective.
“I think it really worked defensively, and offensively we were able to get some things going,” Haarms said. “We know how both of us like to play, so I think it kind of worked out.”
Painter learned something about his team Sunday. After struggling early against Minnesota, the Boilers found another gear and dominated the Gophers when they needed it most. Not only did Purdue outscore Minnesota 46-35 after halftime, it also held the Gophers to 12-of-28 from the floor and outrebounded them 20-12 in the final 20 minutes.
“Sometimes you respond in one phase of the game,” Painter said. “I thought our guys responded in all phases — offensively, defensively and on the glass. … I think it’s a great sign when you can have struggles in certain areas but still be able to do the things necessary in the last 12 minutes to win the basketball game.”
The Boilermakers are back in action Saturday when they host 13-9 Nebraska, which is currently on a five-game losing streak. Purdue will look to stay atop the Big Ten standings with its eighth straight win.
“I think our guys are just feeling good about themselves,” Painter said.