It didn't take long for Purdue head coach Matt Painter to find success in West Lafayette, reaching the NCAA Tournament in his second year as the Boilermakers head coach. The appearance way back when in 2007 would start a streak of six straight tournament appearances and a considerable amount of success, never losing in the opening round under Painter. While those former Purdue teams could have achieved more success if not for several untimely injuries (and a certain key suspension), it was still an impressive run for a program that had became stagnant during the end of longtime head coach Gene Keady's tenure.
While the years immediately following the departure of the Baby Boilers were a bit shaky for the program, Purdue has turned things back around and will now be playing in the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. While some people have mentioned that the Boilermakers had underachieved a bit in conference play, the team closed out the season on a high note and came one shot away from knocking off one of the nation's hottest teams in the Big Ten Tournament title game. Now Purdue will shift focus towards an Little Rock team from the Sun Belt Conference that has won 29 of their 33 games this season.
Midwest Region - 1st Round
#5 Purdue Boilermakers 26-8 (B1G) vs. #12 Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans 29-4 (SBC)
Time: 4:20 PM ET (30 minutes following Iowa State / Iona)
Location: Pepsi Center (Denver, Colorado)
Boilermakers Look to Control the Paint
The one word that can be used to describe Purdue in a nutshell would be size, something the Boilermakers have plenty of. As if having a dominating 7'0" All-Big Ten center in A.J. Hammons wasn't enough, the team also has 7'2" Isaac Haas ready to spell Hammons whenever he gets tired or in foul trouble. Even better is that Haas would be a legitimate starting center, probably one of the best in the conference, if Hammons wasn't there. The 1-2 punch has created nightmares for opposing teams as they struggle to deal with the size and eventual foul issues that typically arise when Hammons and Haas start drawing fouls at a high rate. Oh, and Purdue can play "small ball" with 6'11" forward Caleb Swanigan running the five, a five-star recruit that likely would have played center at a number of the schools recruiting him.
For Purdue their interior game on offense is a major asset and when Hammons and Haas can score down low, it's very hard to slow down the Boilermakers. Mix that with a defensive team that makes scoring problematic and you have a solid foundation that has led Purdue throughout most of the season. The team isn't perfect, however, as they lack a true point guard and have had issues with consistency from outside. A lot of Purdue fans will be quick to point out some of the success from P.J. Thompson and Johnny Hill, as well as the fact that the team "doesn't need a true point guard," but if Purdue had a point that could shoot more effectively and create shots more effectively, the Boilers would be a legitimate Final Four squad. As is, the team still gets by, especially with Thompson starting to pick things up offensively in the later half of the season.
So what does that mean for Purdue in the tournament? Well their one Achilles heel this season has been inconsistency from the perimeter and struggling in the second half of tight games. If Purdue is ice cold from outside, and continues to throw it up, they're a beatable team. On the flip side, if guys like Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline are feeling it from outside, mixed with the team's size inside and defense across the board, Purdue will provide problems for any team in the tournament.
Historical Season for First Year Coach Chris Beard
Heading into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament the Trojans of Little Rock had 27 wins and still needed to win their conference tournament if they wanted in to the big dance. While the Trojans have a nice RPI at 42nd, their two best wins have came against Tulsa and San Diego State, with their only other top 100 wins coming against Louisiana-Monroe (96th). The best opponent Little Rock played this season was most likely Texas Tech, falling by 12 back in December.
Of course a lot of mid-majors have soft schedules and the Trojans have had limited games against quality opposition. So on one hand while their 29 wins might be a bit misleading, it could also be the end result of a very good team not having enough opportunities to prove themselves. And in an interesting connection, first year (at the Division I level) head coach Chris Beard actually comes from the coaching tree of former Indiana coach Bob Knight, though he spent time with the former Hoosiers coach while at Texas Tech.
Defense On Full Display
Heading into the first round the Boilermakers inadvertently drew an opponent that has some definite similarities, with Little Rock playing a slow and defensive brand of basketball. This slower pace has paid off for the Trojans, holding opponents to 59.6 points per game (2nd in the nation) and only 38.8% shooting from the field (9th). Not to be outdone, though, Purdue has held their opponents to 64.6 points per game (26th) and only 39.1% shooting (15th), showing that defense could be on full display this afternoon. Of course a slow pace means limited possessions, meaning if either team gets into trouble with turnovers they're going to have considerable issues, with the team most capable of holding onto the ball putting themselves into good position.
Size, though, could be critical here. The reality is Purdue's size could (and should) be the deciding factor, with the Trojan's tallest starter being 6'11" forward Lis Shoshi. That's not a huge size disadvantage, but Shoshi also only averages about 22 minutes per game and the combination of Hammons / Haas / Swanigan means Purdue will likely have size inside for the entire 40 minutes. The next man up when it comes to playing time this season for Little Rock would be Mareik Isom, but he only measures in at 6'9". The reality is Little Rock is going to have colossal issues inside and the trio of Purdue bigs, especially Hammons, should have plenty of opportunities to score inside early and often.
That means if Little Rock wants to pull off the 12-5 upset, they'll need to force turnovers on defense and win the shooting contest from outside. The Trojans are currently 19th in the nation in three point percentage (38.8%), though they're only 187th in attempts. Guys like Marcus Johnson Jr. (46.1%), Mareik Isom (42.3%) and Kemy Osse (38.7%) will need to have a hot hand from outside and ramp up the scoring to make up for the teams disadvantages inside. It'd also help Little Rock if Purdue has a cold shooting performance, with Purdue being too good if they can convert from outside.
So what will we have this afternoon out in Denver? Well Little Rock will likely try to play a slow halfcourt game, which should play into the hands of Purdue. Look for the Boilermakers to try to push things early before settling down and starting to feed their bigs inside, taking advantage of their strengths to down the Trojans. If Little Rock wants the upset they'll need to make Purdue play sloppy and settle for three pointers while keeping A.J. Hammons out of sync. (Look no further than Purdue's most recent game against Michigan State to see what can happen when Hammons is struggling).
If you're into slow, defensive outings, Purdue and Little Rock could be your game. Of course if Purdue uses their size to their advantage, things could get out of hand as the Boilermakers should have their way in the paint.