Door opens for Purdue in NCAA Tournament, but can Boilermakers step through?
Not since 2000 has Purdue seen the door to a Final Four run open so wide.
Back then, the 6-seeded Boilermakers saw the rest of the West Region crumble around them, with top-seeded Arizona and No. 2-seed St. John’s falling in the 2nd round. Purdue itself knocked off the 3rd-seeded Oklahoma Sooners. Suddenly by the start of the Sweet 16 in Albuquerque, LSU was the top remaining seed (4), although the Tigers were dispatched in the regional semifinal by the 8th-seeded Badgers. Meanwhile, Purdue knocked off 10-seed, and then-Cinderella Gonzaga. It set up an All-Big Ten regional finale, as Purdue, led by seniors Brian Cardinal, Jaraan Cornell and Mike Robinson, tried to get Gene Keady to a Final Four.
But the Wisconsin matchup marked the 4th meeting between the 2 schools. Although the Badgers had been only 8-8 in the Big Ten, they had been a thorn for Purdue, beating the Boilermakers at home and in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Purdue had taken the earlier meeting in Mackey. But it was Badgers who won the big one, advancing to the 2000 Final Four.
It marked the last best chance for Keady.
And arguably, it marked the last time Purdue had much luck in the NCAA Tournament.
Over the past few days, the East Region has gradually been toppled. First, No. 2-seed Kentucky, a team many thought that the talent for a Final Four run, if not a title, was nuked by Saint Peter’s, with the Peacocks becoming only the 10th 15-seed to win an opening-round game. Top-seed Baylor fell in Round 2, getting knocked off by North Carolina. Now, the Boilermakers are left as the region’s highest-remaining seed, facing 6-seed Texas on Sunday night, then the Peacocks, before either 4 seed UCLA or 8 seed UNC.
But the Longhorns come first, and it’s not as if Purdue doesn’t have significant reason to fear Texas. Coach Chris Beard has been a significant thorn in the side of the Boilermakers in the NCAA Tournament, first as coach at Little Rock then as the boss at Texas Tech. Beard’s Little Rock squad upended Purdue in a classic 12-5 matchup in 2016, when the Trojans beat the Boilermakers in 2 overtimes. Two years later in a region semifinal, the 3rd-seeded Red Raiders nuked 2 seed Purdue’s chance at a Final Four run.
Beard’s teams are usually fundamentally sound defensively, and this Texas squad is no different. The Longhorns rank 15th in the country in adjusted defense, according to Kenpom.com. They have allowed opponents to score only 60 points per game this season, while holding them to 41.5% shooting from the field and less than 32% from 3-point range.
Beard is going to try to crank up the pressure on Purdue’s guards in the halfcourt, looking to trap at opportunities early in Boilermakers possessions. And the Longhorns will likely be physical on the inside, attempting to jostle, as much as the referees will allow, Purdue big men Zach Edey and Trevion Williams.
Limiting turnovers will be a must, particularly for guards Jaden Ivey and Eric Hunter Jr., and by the posts, who are likely to get a bunch of touches. And that has been a bugaboo for the Boilermakers at times this season, not so much in their turnover totals, but in critical ones, or strings of ones, at inopportune times.
But if Ivey maintains control of himself and Purdue’s offense, one of the best in the country in terms of efficiency, should continue to be able to operate.
Getting by the Longhorns might be the key to the door for the Boilermakers. In Purdue’s 5 trips to a regional since 2000, it has lost to a lower-seeded team only once, but it came to a Beard-coached team, when the 2nd-seeded Boilermakers lost to 3rd-seeded Texas Tech in 2018. If Purdue makes the regional in Philadelphia this season, then it’s likely to be the favorite against the Peacocks, then against either the Bruins or Tar Heels.
It’s not a bad position to be in, yet not a given either.