March Madness: Predicting how far Purdue will go in the NCAA Tournament
When Purdue lost to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament title game Sunday afternoon, it likely locked the Boilermakers in as a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The only questions surrounded the draw.
The answers look challenging. Purdue, the No. 3 seed in the East Region, gets No. 14 seed Yale in the first round on Friday in Milwaukee. After getting by the Bulldogs — the Boilermakers will be a heavy favorite, although recent history says they should be on alert from Day 1 — the competition clicks up considerably. Purdue could face 6-seed Texas (led by previous NCAA nemesis Chris Beard) or potentially 11-seed Virginia Tech, a surging team that beat Duke in the ACC tourney title game Saturday, in Round 2.
The Boilermakers share the East with 1-seed Baylor, the reigning National Champs, 2-seed Kentucky and 4-seed UCLA, teams that have characteristics — length and athleticism, in particular — that traditionally give Purdue fits this time of year.
Scouting the 1st-round opponent
Yale scored a mild upset of Princeton in the Ivy League championship game on Sunday, beating the Tigers 66-64 to earn the conference’s automatic bid. It marks a return for the league, after it didn’t participate in the NCAA season last year due to the Covid pandemic.
The Bulldogs, the league’s 2nd seed, are 19-11 overall, 11-3 in the conference.
Coached by James Jones, Yale has a veteran group, led by senior guard Azar Swain, who averaged 19.2 points per game, and classmate Jalen Gabbidon, who adds 11.6. The two have combined to make 100 3-pointers this season, averaging about 3.5 makes per outing. Six other players average between 4.4 and 7.3 points, making Yale fairly well-balanced on offense.
But what the Bulldogs lack is interior size, which might be a difficulty in their matchup vs. gigantic Purdue, which features 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey and 6-10 backup Trevion Williams. Yale goes only 6-8 on its front line, although it did still manage to outrebound opponents, but only narrowly, this season.
Yale, which finished its regular season ranked only 147th in the Net Rankings, finished the non-conference with a 6-8 record, losing to fellow NCAA teams Vermont, Auburn, Saint Mary’s and Seton Hall, with an average margin of loss of more than 23 points. But after having a Covid pause for an entire month, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15 when 1 game was canceled and 3 others postponed, the Bulldogs started rolling in the Ivy League. They won 9 of 10 after the restart, including an 80-74 game at Princeton in which 5 players scored in double-figures, led by sophomore guard Matt Knowling’s 17.
Princeton beat Yale in the return trip to New Haven, Conn. Then, the Bulldogs lost a chance at a share of the Ivy League regular-season title when they were upset at Cornell.
But Yale got redemption, beating Penn in the tourney semifinals, then taking Princeton in the rubber game.
Purdue’s size will be way too much for Yale too handle.
The Boilermakers should be able to pound the ball inside to Edey, who will be a matchup nightmare, and Williams, whose game jumped in the 3 contests in the Big Ten Tournament. If they get going, and Purdue hits from the perimeter, then it should be able to roll relatively easily in the opening round.
What could trip up Purdue? Recent history isn’t great; Purdue, as the 4 seed, lost what felt like a gimme-game last season, falling in the first round to North Texas. Also, the Boilermakers’ recent penchant for turning the ball over, like the 17 vs. Iowa in the Big Ten title game, is alarming. It might not hurt vs. the Bulldogs, but it almost certainly could in Round 2, especially if Purdue faces Texas, one of the country’s best defensive teams.
The Boilermakers should win with ease on Friday, but Sunday’s game — either Texas or Va. Tech — will be a challenge. A short NCAA trip, following an unfulfilling regular season that saw Purdue finish 3rd in the Big Ten in the regular season and 2nd in the tourney, would be a gigantic disappointment.
Unless a window opens, with upsets elsewhere in the East Region in Philadelphia, Purdue’s journey seems destined to end in the semifinals vs. 2-seed Kentucky. The Wildcats have a big man in Oscar Tshiebwe who can neutralize Purdue’s biggest strengths, plus the athletes to match Boilermaker All-American Jaden Ivey.