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What Can The Boilermakers Do In This Year’s NCAA Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Purdue vs Iowa Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue entered the season with one of the most experienced teams and were looking to make a deep push in the NCAA Tournament and contend for a Big Ten title. Their success throughout the season puts them in a good position for a run to at least the Sweet 16 this March, though they came up a bit short in the Big Ten. Of course that’s not a huge surprise considering they lost four games at the buzzer, struggling to close out close games.

Possibly one of the best signs for Purdue heading into March might just be those losses, as well as some of the teams uglier wins. The Boilermakers defense was a weak point most of the season, and the offense occasionally struggled, but even when Purdue was playing bad they found themselves in position to win basically every game this season. Can they finally start sealing the deal? As much as the buzzer beats sting, Purdue has won plenty of close games. More notably, they’ve won a number of games this season they would have lost in years past.

With a defense that has been playing better as of late, if Purdue’s offense can return to midseason form they might be ready to turn some heads over the next few weeks.

Opening Round

In their first game the Boilermakers will face Yale from the Ivy League. The Bulldogs will have their hands full considering they have a defense ranked worse than Purdue and have an offense ranked by KenPom outside of the top 200. That inefficient offense could prove detrimental as it won’t allow Yale to take advantage of Purdue’s defensive issues, while their offense is going to need to have a big day to keep pace with the Boilers.

Yale is led by guard Azar Swain, who is averaging 19.2 points per game. Outside of Jalen Gabbidon, no one else on the roster averages more than 7.3 points per game. With an offense that turns the ball over almost 13 times per game and shoots 33% from three, it’s going to be difficult to keep pace with Purdue. Oh, and fun fact, the tallest starter for Yale measures in at 6’7”.

If They Advance

It’s well assumed that the Boilermakers will knock off Yale in the opening round and move on to the Round of 32. How far Purdue goes beyond that will be dependent on a number of issues the team has struggled with. First off is fixing the offense. Purdue’s big men inside continue to dominate, though Purdue will benefit if star Jaden Ivey can piece together a strong 40 minute performance. As good as Ivey has been, he has been typically starting off slow for a half before blowing up in the second. Another focus point is Sasha Stefanovic, who needs to find his shot if Purdue really wants to be a Final Four contender.

The other two areas that continue to be problems for Purdue is turnovers and free throws. Against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament title game they repeatedly turned the ball over in a game that was entirely winnable. Not only that, but they missed way too many free throws and even worse, continued to miss the front end of one-and-ones. If Purdue keeps failing at the charity stripe and if they continue to turn the ball over, they’ll have a solid chance of getting knocked out well before a Final Four appearance.

Their second round opponent will either be Texas or Virginia Tech. The Hokies were on the wrong side of the bubble before a late push in the ACC Tournament and an upset over Duke punched their ticket with a 11 seed. Neither team has a better offense than Purdue, but they would prove a more formidable defensive opponent than Yale. Most teams will struggle to size up inside against Purdue, or slow down Ivey, so if a team wants to beat Purdue it’ll likely be through a mix of turnovers and keeping the Boilermakers role players from finding their rhythm from the perimeter.

A potential Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky could be interesting, as the Wildcats also feature a team with a considerably better offense than defense. Kentucky has bounced around the top 25 all season long, showing signs of being a legit title contender and then losing games that make you wonder if they’re really good but not that good. While Kentucky has lost to a laundry list of stronger SEC teams, they went 3-6 in games against ranked (at the time) opponents.

An Elite Eight appearance would likely draw a potential title contender in either Baylor or UCLA. There are a few other teams in play, including a North Carolina squad the Boilermakers beat and a highly unlikely yet still technically possible showdown with the Hoosiers. Unless someone busts some brackets in the East, Purdue will likely have a very difficult Sweet 16 and Elite 8 opponent if they want to reach that elusive Final Four. A national semifinal appearance could see a laundry list of opponents, most likely either Gonzaga, Duke, Texas Tech or Arkansas. Somehow I’d feel more comfortable with that Final Four draw over their likely opposition if they make it to the second weekend.

Overall

This is one of the best Purdue teams since the Baby Boilers. From a talent standpoint this year’s time is likely better than the teams led by Carsen Edwards, with Jaden Ivey somehow proving to be an even bigger playmaker. With a dominant one-two punch inside and a ton of role guys this Purdue team is stacked and capable of making a deep push this postseason.

Of course their issues at times with turnovers, free throws and an offense that stalls out just enough to keep things close all prove problematic. Purdue fans likely hope that they’ve suffered enough buzzer beaters to last for the rest of the season and will finally draw some better luck.

One of the biggest question marks heading into the tournament for Purdue deals with expectations. This has never been a “Final Four or bust” team, but the early season success skyrocketed fans expectations to the point where double digit Big Ten wins were met with criticism and complaints. The fan response and the lack of getting over the hump in the postseason for Purdue means anything less than a deep run will likely leave a sour taste in the mouth of Purdue fans at the end of the year.