WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Matt Haarms and Nojel Eastern have both played more than 100 games at Purdue. They both helped Purdue get a click away from the Final Four two years ago. They both could have helped Purdue contend in the Big Ten next year.
Instead, they turned and walked away, opting to transfer instead of finishing out their college careers next winter with their teammates at Purdue.
Two transfers in a month leads to that obvious question. What's wrong at Purdue?
The answer, to me, is just as obvious.
Matt Painter has, more or less, spent his last 30 years at Purdue. He knows everything you need to know about college basketball, because he's been a player, an assistant, a head coach, a father figure, a mentor, a leader ... and so much more.
And when these two guys leave, is he concerned?
"No, not at all,'' Painter said Wednesday during a radio interview with Dan Dakich on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis, a day after Eastern entered the NCAA transfer portal. Haarms transferred to BYU last month. "When people look at the big picture, when you step back and digest it, we probably got better today.
"I feel bad, but at the end of the day, we move on. I like where we are, and what our guys are doing.''
Indeed they do move on. Still, it's an interesting snapshot this past month. Haarms and Eastern were both starters at the beginning of the year. Heck, they were the face of the program in October, traveling to Chicago with Painter for Big Ten Media Day.
But it their junior years, both players regressed. Both lost their starting jobs at some point in the season, and their poor play had a lot to do with the Boilermakers finishing 16-15 instead of the 20-plus games they were expected to win.
Painter said Wednesday that he really likes both kids, and wanted them both to stay. They might have had diminished roles next season, but they still could have helped. He thinks both were afraid of competing and working hard for minutes, and he was clear to bring up a few analogies with Dakich to describe the problems this year's team had in working hard. nothing like guys from past teams like Carsen Edwards and Caleb Swanigan, who knew that extra work on the court or in the gym was their key to success at the next level.
Haarms and Eastern didn't see that. That's why they lost their jobs to players who worked harder and passed them by.
"To me, it's all about competition. It's a business, man,'' Painter said. "You've got to be productive, and you've got to work to be good. I told our team this year, does anyone think they put in more time on their jump shot than Carsen Edwards did? Did they work in the gym any harder than Caleb Swanigan did?
"No one raised their hand. Carsen Edwards woke up every day thinking about making threes. Caleb Swanigan knew he needed to do extra work, and put in the time with an extra workout when he needed it. He did that. When your work ethic isn't at a high level, guys have to be realistic. Do you work harder than them? They know they don't.''
Different situations for both players
One of the joys of a story blowing up like this one did on Wednesday — it was the No. 1-ranked story by page views in the eight-mont history of our Sports Illustrated Purdue site — was that there was plenty of opportunity to debate the issue on social media. And a lot of Purdue fans — and college basketball fans around the state and country — had differing views on the two transfers.
Haarms played three years at Purdue and he did graduate this month. That's a big deal. He has a Purdue degree in his pocket, and many people said that because he's graduated, he did his part in West Lafayette. He has the right to go anywhere he'd like, if he so desires.
And that's true. But what is also true — and I had many heated arguments about this on Wednesday — is that Haarms still walked away from his teammates. He has a year left. and he abandoned those guys. He turned and walked away.
Painter said as much himself. And the one quote that he got roasted for the most was this:
"You might have gotten your degree from Purdue, but you're not a Boilermaker if you walk out the door in the end.''
And he's right.
Haarms's regression during his junior year had a lot to do with injuries. He had two concussions and a bruised hip from a hard fall. He was never quite right while averaging 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
"To his defense, he got hurt. He had two concussions,'' said Painter, who doesn't see what Haarms is gaining by transferring to BYU. "I was really looking forward to him coming back and fighting.
"I really don't know how things changed for him (with the transfer). Will he play against better competition? No. Play in a better league? No. Look, it's worked out here for a lot of guys in that position, but it reality, Trevion Williams beat him out. That's it. Guys who want to play in the league, you have to work. Carsen Edwards did. Caleb Swanigan did. ... I didn't see that from him. You embrace problems and embrace adversity and fight it. You don't run from it."
Eastern's diminished skills an issue
There is no denying that Nojel Eastern is a great defensive player, and he certainly would have helped next season with some key matches, especially in Big Ten games. But his offensive skills are horrible, and that's on the player to not get better there.
Eastern, despite all his struggles, still averaged 25.5 minutes a game last year. But he averaged only 4.9 points, shot just 42 percent from the field, never made a single three-pointer and shot a horrific 48.5 percent from the free throw line.
No athletic 6-foot-7 guard should be such a poor free throw shooter. And that's easily fixable simply by working at it.
I'm 61 years old, never played high school basketball and haven't even played in a pick-up game since I was 35 years old. I haven't even touched a basketball since 2012, and I guarantee I could walk into Mackey Arena tomorrow and make at least 5-of-10 from the line. Guaranteed.
It's about putting in the work and getting better. If you don't, you get passed by. Eastern did.
"With Nojel, and the four new guys coming in that I really like, somebody's going to sit. I don't decide that; they do,'' Painter said. "When you get in that mix, it's part of competition. When you come to a school like this, everyone's good. I don't just hand out scholarships at the mall.
"Look at our guards. All those guys, Eric Hunter, Sasha (Stefanovich), they all improved, and you didn't improve,'' Painter said of Eastern. "He took a step back this year. Now you become the outlier, because the other guys, they all got better. To me, and I love him, but he's got to check his hole card. The other guys got better, and he didn't.''
Painter said both players looked at things individually instead of evaluating the big picture. And they will regret that in the long run, he said.
"They are looking at it from an individual standpoint,'' he said. "But in reality, how about coming back and helping Purdue win the Big Ten? You can say certain things about wanting to be a pro and not back it up. We live in that microwave culture, and it's too bad.
"These guys are like, 'Hey I wanna be a pro.' I'm like, why don't we be all-conference in college first? Why don't we try that out? So you'll get guys that average 4, 6, 9 or 10 points and say, "Coach I want you to develop me into a pro." Well, why don't you work like a pro? So you're gonna knock somebody out of the Pacers' rotation? Who? What's their name? They don't get the picture of how good you've got to be and how much work you have to put in."
Formula for success is still there
In 15 years, Matt Painter has won 337 games at Purdue. He's won three Big Ten titles and been to the NCAA tournament 11 times. He's won 26 games or more eight times.
He knows what he's doing. And he certainly knows better than Haarms or Eastern as to what an NBA player looks like.
"I averaged eight points a game and I wasn't putting my name in the draft,'' said Painter, taking a jab at Eastern, who has put his name in twice.. "They don't get the big picture of how much work you're going to have to put in. That's the one thing that hasn't changed in all of these years. You have to be really, really good to play in the NBA. Average 18 and 12. Score 25 a game. Dominate college. That's what it takes.
"The world's tough, man. Sometime you just need to hunker down and do it. I just don't understand how we're helping people by letting them move around. That's just not the way life is.
"We've got a lot of great things going on here at Purdue. It's his loss. When you walk out the door and turn your back, you're not thinking clearly about the big picture, and what Purdue can do for you in your whole life. Being loyal is a two-way street. The people that stay there and keep a positive attitude and keep pushing forward, they're the ones who are successful in life.''
Matt Painter has been successful in life. There's nothing wrong at Purdue right now.
Painter even said these are good kids, and he's right. But good kids can still make poor choices.
Haarms and Eastern did. That's their right, sure, but I guarantee they will regret it down the road.
And for what? For fear of competition? For not wanting to work harder?
There is no easy way through life. This might very well be a great lesson learned.
Related stories on Purdue basketball
- PAINTER ON DAKICH SHOW: Purdue coach Matt Painter chatted with radio host Dan Dakich for 26 minutes Wednesday, and it was internet gold. CLICK HERE
- EASTERN ENTERS TRANSFER PORTAL: Purdue guard Nojel Eastern has told Purdue that he is entering the NCAA transfer portal. CLICK HERE
- HAARMS TRANSFERS TO BYU: Purdue center Matt Haarms has decided to continue his college career at BYU. CLICK HERE
- KEADY ENJOYING RETIREMENT: Former Purdue basketball coach Gene Keady enjoys golf these days, along with his occasional visits back to West Lafayette. And he's still one of the game's greatest storytellers. CLICK HERE
- DANIELS WANTS STUDENTS BACK: Purdue president Mitch Daniels says he wants students back on campus in the fall. CLICK HERE