Doubters justified: Purdue's path to 1st Final Four since 1980 stacks up as a tough one
The Boilermakers can hear the naysayers.
Heck, even Fairleigh Dickinson’s coach declared Purdue beatable within moments of the 16 seed’s victory in the First Four play-in game. A recent Twitter poll asked users which 1 seed would be ousted first. A majority answered Purdue. While Seth Davis has the Boilermakers in the Elite Eight, he points out it’s not an easy path, with potential games against tough-outs Memphis or Florida Atlantic in Round 2, resurgent Duke potentially in the Sweet 16 and maybe long, athletic Marquette in the East Regional final. Analyst Ken Pomeroy noted that in the 64- (or 68-) team eras, 36 teams have entered the tournament as a 1 or 2 seed that weren’t ranked in the Top 25 in the preseason; none has advanced to a Final Four. Purdue (and Marquette) are in that group this season. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Duke beating Purdue in the Sweet 16, agreeing with many others who point out the Blue Devils are 17-1 this season when they have their full complement of players, as they do now.
And on and on, as it seems few trust the Boilermakers to advance to their 1st Final Four since 1980.
Good thing for Purdue that nobody’s opinion matters. The Boilermakers will win or lose on the actual court — the the of public opinion — during March (and potentially April), starting with the tip tonight in their 1st round game vs. FDU in Columbus, Ohio. Purdue has won 5 straight games, including 3 in a row in the Big Ten Tournament, to take positive momentum into the Dance. But the streak came after holes were exposed — and exploited — during a stretch of 4 losses in 6 games. Purdue has struggled at times this season with its perimeter shooting, as it ranks 258th in the country from beyond the 3-point line (32.6%), which seems a bizarre trait for a team that seemingly has good shooters. But more glaring a weakness of late, and potentially one that could be the Boilermakers undoing in the tourney, is their propensity to struggle against the press.
Purdue labored vs. blitzing squads like Rutgers and Maryland during the regular season. And when Illinois and Penn State flipped to a full-court press recently, they were able to climb back from gigantic 2nd-half deficits: 24 points for the Illini and 17 for the Nittany Lions. Although Purdue held on for victories in each, including in the conference tourney title game vs. PSU, the trend is alarming. And then add in that the Boilermakers find themselves in a bracket that includes long, athletic, defensive-minded teams like Memphis and Marquette that will put on full-court assaults, and it compounds the warning.
But it’s been a weird trend this season, with experts claiming opponents have discovered the formula for beating Purdue, but only making those declarations after Boilermaker victories. Have you been “found out” if you’re winning? Does losing a 24-point lead matter if you ultimately hang on to win? Does anything other than the outcome matter in March?
Maybe the Boilermakers will get tripped up in the tourney again this season, as they did vs. 15-seed St. Peter’s in the Sweet 16 last season or like they did vs. Virginia in 2019 — Kihei Clark’s horrible pass vs. Furman Thursday afternoon brought back memories of his perfect one in the closing moments of regulation vs. Purdue 4 years ago — or against Little Rock or anyone else in the past 43 years.
But maybe they won’t. Purdue has plenty working in its favor, such as All-American and potential National Player of the Year Zach Edey, who is a tough matchup for just about anyone the Boilermakers will see. While the Boilermakers have struggled at times to shoot, they’re capable of getting hot for stretches, and they have the country’s 6th-most efficient offense, per KenPom. The defense, a sore spot a year ago, is No. 23 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency.
Perhaps Purdue will be helped if it has to play the best of the best in the region, because seeing the door swing open, as it did with Saint Peter’s run last season, hasn’t worked out well. The Boilermakers came closest to ending their Final Four drought in 2019, when as the 3 seed, they faced chalk, beating the 14, 6 and 2 seeds before Clark and the top-seeded Cavaliers ousted them in overtime of the Elite Eight.
Face the demons (maybe even the Blue Devils) head on. Dismiss the naysayers. Maybe that’s the path to ending the NCAA drought. Purdue has that chance again this year.