Dakota Mathias, 6' 4" junior guard, Purdue
By his own admission, Mathias was “the worst defender by far on the team” during his freshman season at Purdue. And why not? He was a huge scorer at Elida (Ohio) High School, having averaged 27.7 points during his four-year career, and the Boilermakers needed his scoring enough that he played 19 minutes per game as a freshman. But when his playing time dipped as a sophomore, Mathias realized he needed to make some changes. “If you’re going to play at Purdue,” he says, “you have to defend.”
After the season was over, Mathias met with Purdue coach Matt Painter in his office, where the coach gave him a long to-do list for the off-season, beginning with the need to improve his agility. Mathias spent the entire spring and summer working with the strength coach to get into better shape. He has also learned the value of using video to study the tendencies of players he’ll be guarding, a habit he picked up from former Purdue guard Raphael Davis, who in 2015 was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the year as well as a member of SI.com's All-Glue team.
The work Mathias did on his body has paid off on the offensive end, where his jump shot no longer suffers from tired legs late in the game. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 12th nationally in three-point shooting at 48.1 percent. Mathias also leads Purdue in assists (3.6 average) and is fourth in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5-to-1).
Yet, Mathias’ most valuable contributions have come at the defensive end. He has gone from the worst defender on the team to the best defender in the league. Mathias routinely guards the opponent’s best perimeter player, locking up high scorers such as Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell (whom Mathias held to eight points on 3-of-9 shooting), Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia (three points on 1-for-8), and Northwestern’s Vic Law (a total of five points on 2-for-20 shooting in the two meetings). His masterpiece came on Dec. 28, when he harassed Iowa’s Peter Jok, who came in leading the Big Ten in scoring, into shooting 1 for 7 from three-point range. (Jok finished with 13 points, but he needed 15 shots to do it.) Mathias credited that performance to having watched every one of Jok’s possessions over his Christmas break.
As a Glue Guy, Mathias knows that it is his job to serve as a complement to sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, who is a candidate for national player of the year. Mathias' contributions are not as noticeable as the ones Swanigan makes, but the people who really count know exactly what he means to the Big Ten champs. “As a coach, you can’t have enough people you trust,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said in February. “The true testament to a good player is when a coach can’t take you out. You don’t feel right taking them out. Dakota is one of those players.”