As Purdue rallied to a Big Ten basketball title, one thing seemed as clear as a Gene Keady foot stomp:
The Boilers bought into Matt Painter's coaching.
You'd better believe that doesn't always happen -- and that it matters.
Specifically, they focused on team success rather than individual glory. They defended collectively rather than relying on shot-blocking preservation. They got the ball inside and when they were double teamed, they kicked out to perimeter sharpshooters. They followed the scouting report. They emphasized good shots over forced ones. They were mature when the starting lineup was changed and playing time fluctuated.
In other words, they tried to do what they were coached to do.
The result -- a 25-6 record, victories in eight of the last nine games, a first-ever Big Ten tourney No. 1 seed and a season-high No. 13 AP poll ranking.
Now, with Friday's tourney opener in Washington D.C. looming against either Michigan (20-11) or Illinois (18-13), and the NCAA Tournament to come, buying in is more important than ever.
How hard is it for players?
Some of it involves perspective. Take sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan, who has started all 65 games of his career.
"Buying in wasn't that hard," he says. "This team was tired of being right there, but not quite finishing. We wanted to take the next step. From the beginning of the season, everyone had bought in."Then there's junior forward Vincent Edwards, good enough to enter the NBA Draft last spring, mature enough to understand when he lost his starting role for eight games, wise enough to recognize freshman know-it-all certainty can give way to a veteran's reality.
"It was tough at first," he says. "As a freshman, sometimes you have selective hearing. You think you know a lot of stuff when you really don't.
"It didn't take us as long to buy in. When we first got here, we were feeling ourselves a little bit. Coach Painter did a good job of installing what we were trying to do here. We kept reminding ourselves this is why we're here -- to help restore this great legacy from this great school. The coaches did a great job, we kept fighting, stuck with it and listened to them."
Take junior center Isaac Haas. He started the first 15 games of the season, and hasn't started since. There were times, because of matchups with opponents going to smaller, quicker lineups (think Notre Dame), that he spent most of his time on the bench.
He didn't pout.
"When I came in, I had already bought in," he says. "I knew (Painter) was a great coach. I knew he was a great guy. He wanted the best for us. He was going to push us. He was going to tell us the truth in terms of playing time. Whether or not you think you did something wrong, he'll give you what he thinks is right or wrong. He'll prove it. I think that's what convinced me to buy into this program. I trusted him. It's special to be a part of something like is."
Painter appreciates this team's buy-in because he's had teams that didn't. That happened big time in 2013 and '14, when the Boilers had consecutive losing season. They finished last in the Big Ten in 2014.
Some of those players, who had solid basketball skills, were poor fits for Painter's style and approach. He corrected that with the junior class of Edwards, Haas, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson.
"It's a lot easier to get guys to buy in when they're already that way," Painter says. "That's why recruiting is so important. You want a quality player and a coachable guy who understands they're going to have to make sacrifices to win.
"It is a difficult thing because in recruiting they need to know how this will work for them. They just do. Each guy wants to know, 'Where do I fit? Where does this put me in comparison to the other schools recruiting me?'
"I've always tried to recruit with the idea of helping them on both ends of the court. A lot of times in recruiting you hear parents talk, coaches talk, players talk, and it's all offense. We all know it really helps if you can defend. It really helps getting on the court if you can defend initially.
"So you try to give them the full scope of what it's going to take to be successful, but also what it will take for them to get on the court. If you can explain that, and they're intelligent, they understand about buying in before they get here."
How challenging is it if the player hasn't bought in before arriving on campus?
"It's really hard," Painter says. "That's why you see a lot of transfers or a lot of people play the blame game -- 'Why aren't I playing? I'm as talented as this guy.'
"Well, you're not as productive as he is. That's what it gets down to. People look at their overall ability instead of their overall production. Part of being productive is trying to do what the coaches are asking you to do, and do a lot of the little things that don't show up on the box score."
Thompson reflects that. He was an undersized guard out of Indianapolis who generated little recruiting buzz, but who has delivered exactly what Painter wanted -- a solid guard who makes good decisions, rarely turns it over and consistently hits outside shots. He shoots 39 percent from three-point range, and ranks among the nation's best with 94 assists and 22 turnovers.
"Coach Painter has made it public that he recruited the type of guys he wanted," Thompson says. "The guys here before, they were good guys, but they were kind of different people. Our focus is on basketball and wanting to get better and play as a team.
"We could have gone to a different program and a different system and we'd have averaged more points, averaged more assists. Here (opposing teams have to) worry about anyone. Anyone can go off on any given night. You can go off in another. It makes it a lot of fun. It makes us hard to guard."
This article is written by Pete DiPrimio from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.