Dakota Mathias' dark days as a freshman helped shape him
MILWAUKEE — Today, Dakota Mathias is bright-eyed and razor sharp, brimming with confidence, a player who might think the game even better than he plays it and he's played it pretty damn well all season, an outstanding offensive player for Purdue who's improbably made himself just as valuable at the opposite end of the floor.
He's become the player he wanted so badly to be when he arrived in West Lafayette in 2014, the player he figured he'd be from the outset of his college career, his assumption being that he was advanced enough mentally to hold an advantage and that his preparation would set him apart. It was going to be a far smoother transition for him to a higher level of basketball than it would be for most others, he believed.
A player who'd show up at Purdue's practices with a notebook in hand while still in high school believed that immediate success was his birthright of sorts at the college level, because he was going to be prepared for it.
It didn't come, mostly for reasons outside his control. Mathias couldn't stay healthy. He rolled both his ankles in preseason practice, one, then the other. Previously, he'd gotten sick in the summer. The actual condition was never officially pinned down, but Mathias calls it mono. The mono, he believes, spawned a case of vertigo.
For a basketball player.
For a jump-shooter.
Obviously, that is not ideal.
It was a testament to Mathias' value to his team that he played through his freshman season — his passing and offensive savvy were transformative elements for the team that returned Purdue to the NCAA Tournament — that he got on the court at all.
"I don't know how he played," team trainer Chad Young said.
But he was a mess.
"I remember — he was just out of it all the time," teammate and classmate P.J. Thompson said. "I knew he was a really good player because I played against him in AAU and he was pretty freaking good. When he got here, you just knew it wasn't him. He was always out of it and didn't talk much. Or if he did talk, he didn't remember it because he was all dizzy."
Thompson said he remembers conversing with a disengaged, glossy-eyed Mathias back then.
"You'd be talking to him and thinking you were having a conversation and he'd be like, 'Huh?'" Thompson said. "You're like, 'I was just talking to you for like 30 seconds straight.'
"He was pretty messed up."
As classmate Vincent Edwards put it, "Dakota fought a lot of battles our freshman year."
Mathias remembers being fatigued and dizzy, wobbly on the floor and foggy off of it.
"There were times (coaches) were probably talking to me and I wasn't hearing them," Mathias remembers now. "I was just trying to not fall."
The player was not well, but his physical condition parlayed itself into affecting his mental well-being, his ambition coming to Purdue turned into a powder-keg as he struggled physically. All those mental advantages Mathias figured he'd enjoy didn't matter, because his body couldn't hold up its end of the bargain.
"That was definitely one of the hardest parts of my life," Mathias says now. "I put a lot of pressure on myself coming in and didn't deal well with some of the illnesses and injuries I had. That's not an excuse, but it was more of a maturity thing. Looking back, I wish I'd have handled it a little differently. It made me a stronger person and made me deal with adversity a little sooner than I thought."
Mathias admits that he allowed his health issues to affect his mind, and affect his life.
"I just wasn't as happy as a person as I normally would be and as I am now," he said. "I wasn't happy, I wasn't healthy and I wasn't playing like I knew I could."
Mathias kept playing, though — and, somehow, playing well by most standards other than his own — but Purdue started pulling him out of practices at times.
"He was supposed to be sitting out, but he'd be trying to get back in drills anyway," Thompson said. "Coach (Matt) Painter and Chad had to force him out."
After games, Mathias would text message coaches about his play, looking for constant answers to the big-picture question of, "Am I doing OK?"
It was as if a player of "ultimate confidence" — as assistant coach Greg Gary, who recruited Mathias and was largely his sounding board in those days, called it — had turned into the opposite.
"He's such a perfectionist," Gary said. "He eats, sleeps, lives basketball and has always put in work to where it's benefited him. As a freshman, it was hard for him to accept not succeeding.
"As much as he wants to be successful, when someone's built that way and it doesn't happen right away, it's an adjustment period."
Now, Mathias looks back at his trying freshman year at Purdue as part of what's made him what he is today. He can even laugh about it now.
It's made him a better player, he says. But it's also provided him some added clarity.
"It's made me want to work even harder, study film more, but also just relax and enjoy it," Mathias said. "It's, 'This is what I've worked for, what I've worked my ass off for. I need to have fun and embrace it."
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