When Purdue coach Matt Painter lost two veteran starters as transfers after last season, he could've gone the popular route in college basketball these days and added other transfers to the roster.
Painter instead took what has now become the nontraditional path: leaning more on freshmen. Purdue is getting 29 points per game combined from freshmen Jaden Ivey, Brandon Newman, Zach Edey and Mason Gillis.
A sharp contrast in roster-building styles will be on display Saturday, when the No. 21 Gophers (11-5, 4-5 Big Ten) — a team heavily reliant on veteran transfers — play at Purdue.
The youthful Boilermakers are the first team to have four different players selected as Big Ten Freshman of the Week since the conference began doling out those honors.
Ivey joined Newman and Gillis recently to give Purdue three freshmen starters now with junior guard Sasha Stefanovic out because of a positive COVID-19 test. And the 7-foot-4 Edey averages almost eight points per game off the bench.
"They've got really good young talent to blend in with some older guys," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "Your roster management might be as important as anything out there. It's such a volatile landscape now that can be very challenging."
The Boilermakers (11-6, 6-4) might have been a sleeper pick to win the Big Ten if they returned four starters, including Trevion Williams, one of the league's top big men. But seniors Nojel Eastern (Howard) and Matt Haarms (BYU) decided to transfer.
Growing pains suddenly were expected with Purdue becoming the Big Ten's youngest team. But Painter was rewarded for giving his freshmen opportunities to play through mistakes and gain confidence.
The best example was the most heralded player of the Boilermakers 2020 recruiting class. Ivey had a rough start to his college career, which was why the four-star guard from South Bend, Ind. was emotional after hitting the game-winning three-pointer in a Jan. 19 upset vs. Ohio State.
"He's one of those guys that wants to be successful," Painter said last week. "You're learning the game, you're learning the system, you're new to college basketball. A lot of his shortcomings have been a normal progression that freshmen go through."
Gophers freshmen woes
Pitino knows what it's like to have freshmen make an immediate impact. He had freshmen starters in both of his NCAA tourneys seasons with the Gophers: Amir Coffey in 2017, and Daniel Oturu and Gabe Kalscheur in 2019.
The last two seasons, though, Pitino has relied much more on transfers than freshmen to fill holes. In 2019-20, the Gophers started three transfers in Marcus Carr, Payton Willis and Alihan Demir. And they've done that again this season, with Both Gach, Brandon Johnson and Liam Robbins.
Last season, freshmen Tre' Williams, Isaiah Ihnen, Sam Freeman and Bryan Greenlee Jr. didn't get consistent playing time. Greenlee transferred. The other three players are still trying to figure out productive roles as sophomores.
Pitino's 2020 class of Jamal Mashburn Jr., Martice Mitchell and David Mutaf wasn't able to make an immediate impact as a group. After playing sparingly in just three games, Mutaf left the team in early January to return to his native Turkey. Mitchell, a 6-10 Chicago native, has only played in six games.
But Mashburn, who averages 5.6 points in 18 minutes in league games, is earning more trust from Pitino. In Minnesota's loss to Maryland last Saturday, the son of the former NBA and Kentucky standout had nine points and three assists in 23 minutes.
With Carr possibly testing the NBA draft waters early again after this season, Pitino said Mashburn is next in line.
"I think Mashburn's going to be a really good player," Pitino said. "We don't know what [Carr's] future holds. Obviously, Mashburn is next man up there."
Michigan's Hunter Dickinson is the only freshman in the Big Ten averaging double figures in scoring with a team-high 15 points per game.
Purdue has three of the top six freshmen scorers in the Big Ten, and four of their freshmen play at least 15 minutes per game. It's worth noting that two of them, Newman and Gillis, are redshirt freshmen.
Illinois (Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller), Iowa (Keegan Murray and Patrick McCaffery) and Indiana (Trey Galloway and Anthony Leal) have at least two freshmen playing 10 minutes a game. Wisconsin plays Jonathan Davis 24 minutes a game this year.
Freshmen athletes have more on their plate than ever, as they try to learn and grow amid constant uncertainty, facing daily COVID-19 testing and ever-changing protocols.
Ivey's teary-eyed postgame interview after his big shot for Purdue vs. Ohio State sums up how tough it's been for some freshmen this season to perform at a high level.
"I'm just trying to gather myself because I've been struggling mentally," Ivey said earlier this month. "I want to win so bad, that to see that shot go in, it just meant so much."