As soon as the Midwest region of the bracket was announced Sunday, ESPN radio personality Ryen Russillo tweeted to the Purdue Boilermakers that they were “toast.”
In all fairness, Russillo was a 1997 graduate of Vermont, the team that got paired with the fourth-seeded Boilers in the opening round. Russillo is just sticking up for his alma mater, but that doesn’t make the opening game a cake-walk for Purdue.
Let’s take a look at the challenges facing Purdue with Vermont.
There aren’t many wins on the Vermont schedule that standout; there’s just a ton of wins. The Catamounts finished the year 29-5 and won their conference and conference tournament.
The scary part, though, is that they’ve won 21 straight games heading into the tournament. They’re hotter than any team in the country.
Purdue’s size should overwhelm the Catamounts, and the lack of competition in the American East Conference wasn’t much preparation for the Boilers.
Purdue dropped its opener to 12-seed Arkansas-Little Rock a year ago, a taste surely plenty sour in the mouths of the Boilermakers. Vermont rides high into the tourney, and its momentum is as strong as it could be, but with hopes even higher for the 2017 Boilers, another first-round loss would be a major disappointment. And unlikely.
-If Purdue Advances
Should Purdue win its opener, the road gets bumpy. For winning the Big Ten regular season, Matt Painter’s bunch got put in a gauntlet of a path to the Final Four. It makes one wonder how the loss to surging Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament affected Purdue’s placement.
The second round — on just a day’s rest and preparation — would pit the Boilermakers with the winner of the intriguing Nevada-Iowa State matchup.
Iowa State is coming in off a three-game winning streak that was capped off with a win of the Big 12 Conference Tournament, where they dropped 80 points on the stingy West Virginia defense. The Cyclones rank 27th in the nation at 80.9 points per game.
But the Nevada Wolf Pack are one of the favorites for the classic 12-5 upsets.
Nevada has won nine straight and utilized its strong athleticism to knock off Colorado State in the Mountain West title game. Nevada also fills up the scoring column at 80 points a game, good for 37th, right behind Purdue (35th - 80 PPG).
Both teams have length and athleticism that can counter Purdue’s inside presence.
From there, Purdue could see Big Ten foe Michigan State — a team nobody wants to see in March — or Miami, which has impressive wins over Duke, North Carolina and Virgina this season.
More likely, though, the Boilermakers would square up for a Sweet 16 matchup with the 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks, a team that spent most of the season chilling at or close to the No. 1 spot in the rankings.
Kansas lacks the dynamic post players that would worry Caleb Swanigan, but the Jayhawks have arguably the best back court in the nation. Frank Mason III could be the guy that halts Swanigan’s run at a National Player of the Year trophy, and the Jayhawks could halt the Boilermakers in their chase for a Final Four appearance.
A win over Kansas would be an upset and historic win for Purdue, but it wouldn’t much brighten the light at the end of the tunnel. The other half of the Midwest bracket is no walk in the park.
Louisville and Oregon await the Boilermakers in potential Elite Eight matchups. Both teams spent a majority of the season in the top 25 and typically higher. Louisville brings the strength of its ACC schedule to the fold, and Oregon took the Pac-12 regular season title for the second year in a row. Had Chris Boucher not torn his ACL over the weekend, the Ducks could have easily jumped up a line or two in the bracket.
The loss of Boucher helps Purdue, as the big man would have stretched Swanigan to the perimeter, but Dillon Brooks and the Ducks guards have experience and skill that can cause any team fits. Louisville has the same, along with some of those big men that can stretch the floor.
Finally, on the other end of the bracket and on everyone’s mind is Michigan — Purdue’s nightmare matchup.
The Wolverines knocked off Purdue in both matchups this season, the most recent during Michigan’s exciting Big Ten Tournament extravaganza. Michigan has a boat load of 3-point shooters, including big man Moritz Wagner, who isn’t a fun matchup for Swanigan.
Seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin carry the Michigan back court, giving the Wolverines a very high ceiling and a chance to make an extended tournament run as a 7-seed.
Needless to say, the Midwest region is a crap shoot, full of a handful of teams that have National Championship potential. Luckily for the Boilermakers, they’re one of those teams.
The road won’t be easy, but with its size and scoring capabilities, paired with experience and the hunger from last season’s early departure, Purdue has as good a team as it’s ever had in the Painter era. The Boilermakers have been to two Sweet Sixteens under Painter, so an Elite Eight or beyond would be a welcomed sight in West Lafayette.
Purdue hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1980 and won its only National Championship in 1932.
It’s been a long time coming, and if the Boilermakers can get through its gauntlet of a bracket, the new banner at Mackey Arena would be well deserved.