I was doing some ready across the network and Testudo Times referred to the Midwest Region as this year's "bracket of death." When everything is said and done, it's hard to disagree with that remark.
If I had told you before the season that Purdue would earn a NCAA bid instead of Michigan, Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota, would you have believed me? Would you have believed me if I mentioned that they would also be seeded higher than both Ohio State and Indiana? Probably not, but it happened. And the reality is somehow that's not a good thing. Purdue's success in the Big Ten was obviously valued considerably more by the committee than their early struggles in December, helping Purdue climb from a 11 seed all the way up to a 9 seed. The only problem? Well they landed in the region with Kentucky.
So while Ohio State and Indiana could hypothetically draw Kansas and Arizona in their second game, Purdue would face off against the undefeated team that, as of this morning, over half the people filling brackets out on ESPN had predicted to win it all. Hell, I'm sure a lot of Purdue fans would have much preferred a potential revenge game against VCU in their opening game instead of Cincinnati. But alas, Purdue landed in the Midwest and if they can get past the Bearcats they'll face off against Kentucky. As if drawing the region with the Wildcats wasn't enough, the region is also home to a Kansas team that had shown flashes of a one seed, the ACC champs Notre Dame (who blew out Purdue) and even second place Big Ten school Maryland all the way down at the four seed. Even dreaded rival Indiana ended up in the same region, so if hell freezes over we could see an Elite 8 showdown between the Boilers and Hoosiers!
While that Kentucky draw just feels unfair, with Purdue likely being better suited if they could have fell a spot or two down, their Thursday game versus Cincinnati should be an interesting game to keep an eye on. It's no secret that Purdue looks to grind it out and play a physical and defensively stout game, something that should go well with a Cincinnati team that ranks 294th in scoring. Of course the Bearcats are also 85th in the nation in field goal percentage, indicating that Cincinnati is likely to play a slow and physical style of game that Purdue will be quite familiar with thanks to their time in the Big Ten. It should also be noted that Purdue should once again hold a size advantage, with Cincinnati's biggest player coming in at 6'10" and the Boilers bringing two guys that reach at least seven feet. Even more problematic is forward/center Octavius Ellis has also reached at least four fouls in about a third of Cincinnati's games, potentially becoming a huge liability if Purdue can draw some early fouls.
Purdue will also have to keep a keen eye on Troy Caupain, a 43% shooter from beyond the arc, as the Boilers have struggled at times this season with three point defense. When all is said and done the Boilers could have their hands full but their well rounded offense has the capability to get passed the Bearcats, the only question is if it will be fully operational. From what we've seen this season there's a lot of reliance on how well A.J. Hammons, Jon Octeus and Rapheal Davis play, with the team struggling considerably when the trio is having an off night. Mix that with the sporadic shooting of three point specialists Kendall Stephens and Dakota Mathias and you have a Purdue team that can be very hot or very cold. That cold Purdue team was the team that looked dreadful in the second month of the season, while the hot Purdue team rambled off eight wins in nine games. As of late we've seen flashes of both, with Purdue looking really good at times before losing to Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, while also looking really bad versus Illinois and Penn State before roaring back to take the game. If Purdue wants to advance to the round of 32 it's going to need to string together some level of consistency...with the reward for a solid 40 minutes being the best team in the nation.
In hindsight that Kentucky game is a horrible draw for Purdue. The Boilers have shown flashes, but in order to compete with the Wildcats they'd need to have everyone playing at their peak for a complete 40 minutes and that's something we just haven't seen from Purdue, even when they've knocked off high level opposition. Of course the more interesting story could be how Hammons fares against Willie Cauley-Stein, especially as Hammons may very well be heading to the NBA and this could be a good test in front of a national audience. Let's not forget that Kentucky has struggled at times with inferior SEC opponents, but always seems to come back for the win when everything is said and done. If the Boilers can shock the nation and advance to the Sweet 16 they'd likely have to feel a lot better about themselves, with Maryland or West Virginia likely waiting. And like mentioned they could hypothetically (like .0001% chance) see Indiana in the Elite 8.
The big thing for this postseason appearance, though, is for Purdue to not fade out and lose on the opening day. If they lose to Kentucky it's something that wouldn't be a surprise. If they can piece together another first round (er, second round) win for Matt Painter and compete against Kentucky though, it could be huge for Purdue heading forward. It'd also prove that the Boilers are back in business instead of simply getting hot at the right time, something that Nebraska fans know all too well right now.