Purdue is an underdog Monday night for only the 3rd time this season.

The Boilers are 2-0 as a ‘dog: They beat then-No. 1 Arizona in December as a 2.5-point ‘dog and then-12 Illinois on the road as a 1.5-point ‘dog in the next-to-last game of the regular season in March.

Monday night, the task is considerably more difficult. Defending champion UConn is a 7-point favorite (via DraftKings) to repeat as national champion.

In its 2 previous wins as an underdog, Purdue needed big outlier performances from players other than Zach Edey. In the win over the Wildcats, sophomore guard Fletcher Loyer was the Boilermakers’ leading scorer, with 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting; classmate Braden Smith added 26, while Edey had a very average — for him — 22 points and 9 rebounds. Against Illinois, Loyer again came up big, scoring 16 (about 4 above his average), while senior Mason Gillis came off the bench to score 10, with 6 rebounds and 4 assists.

Who will it be against the Huskies in the National Championship? The odds likely accurately reflect UConn’s recent dominance in the NCAA Tournament. It has won 11 consecutive games in the tourney — all by double digits — and have an average victory margin of about 25 points this time. The Huskies, who have won 32 of their past 33 nonconference games, have not trailed in the 2nd half of an NCAA Tournament game since the 2nd round in ’23, when St. Mary’s led the Huskies for 38 seconds. On Saturday in the semifinal, Alabama had the game tied with 12:44 remaining, but that lasted only 40 seconds. All of that, plus ESPN’s matchup predictor has UConn with a 54.3% chance of earning the victory, while KenPom puts it at 60%.

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The interior matchup between Edey and Donovan Clingan will get a ton of pregame attention, as it should, with the 7-4, 300-pound Boilermaker national-player-of-the-year facing UConn’s 7-2, 280-pound post, one of the best defensive centers in college basketball. But if they play to a stalemate, particularly with Clingan at least keeping Edey to near his season averages of 25 points and 12 rebounds, then the story will move elsewhere.

For Purdue, it’ll likely take someone else having a career-defining game to pull the upset and win the program’s first national championship.

Maybe Smith can bounce back from what was arguably his worst performance of his season, perhaps his career, in Saturday’s 13-point win over NC State. Then, the point guard scored only 3 points on 1-of-9 shooting (although the one was a big triple late), with 6 assists but 5 turnovers, including twice in which he stepped back over the mid-court line for a violation.

His matchup vs. the Huskies will be a challenging one, as he’ll likely go vs. UConn point guard Tristen Newton, a bigger 6-5 athlete whose length might hassle his Boilermaker counterpart. Loyer has had a tendency to turn in big games in big moments, like his outburst against Arizona or his similar one a month earlier in the Maui Invitational win over Tennessee. He slumped in the middle of the Big Ten season, but those days seem long over. Loyer has been Purdue’s 2nd-leading scorer in the tourney, at 11.6 points while hitting 9-of-18 from long range.

Maybe Lance Jones could go off. The transfer, who has been a big-shot maker during his 1 season in West Lafayette, with this tendency to hit in key moments, is certainly capable of catching a heater. He had a 4-game stretch earlier in the Big Ten season in which he scored at least 20 points in 3 outings. And he’s coming off a game against the Wolfpack when he had 14 points, including 4 3-pointers.

Perhaps Gillis is due for a big one. The forward is a deadeye 3-point shooter, hitting at better than 47% this season, often getting open looks by sneaking in the backside of screen-and-rolls between Smith and Edey. Gillis has had a relatively quiet NCAA Tournament so far, hitting 6-of-15 3-pointers, but he can get hot. Last season, he got rolling against Penn State in Mackey Arena, when he nailed 9 3-pointers on his way to a 29-point outburst.

But whoever steps forward, the Boilermakers are likely to need it, if they’re to upset the Huskies to win their first NCAA Tournament era title.

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