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2020 Space Coast Challenge Preview

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Purdue faces a decent challenge to start the year in Melbourne, Florida.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Liberty vs Mississippi State Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow we get actual, factual Purdue basketball! It is the first time we have taken the court since the bitter senior day loss to Rutgers, where a missed free throw with a second left in regulation cost the Boilers the game. Purdue never got a chance to redeem itself in the Big Ten Tournament. It never got one last shot to make the NCAAs. It never got an NIT run to get a few more games in Mackey Arena and maybe even get a consolation tournament title.

Four more than eight months now we have waited, and now we get to see what should be an interesting team for the first time. This year senior day will be fast because there are no seniors on the roster. That’s a first in a long time for Purdue. We don’t even have a random walk-on as a senior. This was supposed to be the team led by Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms. They are now at Howard and BYU, respectively, and Purdue’s junior leader in Eric Hunter Jr. is out with a leg injury for the first month of the season.

Purdue has only 11 scholarship players this season, and with Hunter out, Ethan Morton battling mono, and Emmanuel Dowuona reportedly having some breathing issues the rotation might be set early for coach Painter. Even if Morton and Dowuona are available Purdue is down to 10 scholarship guys, five of which have never played a single minute of college basketball and a sixth (Dowuona) who has only played sparingly. The pieces are there, but youth is going to reign as this is a team about a year away from making some real noise, especially with the Big Ten being absolutely loaded this year.

We have been surprised before, however.

The season was originally supposed to start weeks ago, but our delayed start begins in Melbourne, Florida in the Space Coast (formerly Cancun) Challenge. The Liberty Flames are replacing Illinois State from the original four team lineup, and that is who Purdue gets first. It is the first time in school history we are playing Liberty.

Liberty Flames

Last season Liberty was really, really good. When COVID hit they had already won the Atlantic Sun conference tournament and automatic bid with an overall record of 30-4. It was their second straight A-Sun conference tournament title and second straight regular season title as well. In the 2019 NCAA Tournament they pulled a 12 over 5 upset of Mississippi State 80-76 for their first ever NCAA Tournament win before falling to Virginia Tech (a team that had beaten Purdue that year) 67-58 in round 2. Given the experience they had returning from 2019 and the results they had on the floor Liberty had the hallmark of a team that was going to be a real bastard to knock out and would have been a trendy pick to be a small conference Sweet 16 team.

The loss of last year’s tournament cost Liberty a just reward for probably the best season in school history. It was a great shot at a memorable run, and now they are rebuilding a bit. Here is what their blog “A Sea of Red” had to say about this year:

Liberty returns two starters from last season in Elijah Cuffee and Darius McGhee. McGhee led the Flames in minutes played a season ago, while Cuffee was third on the team in minutes.

McGhee will look to build upon his 9.5 points per game from last season, which finished 4th on the team. He is the team’s leading returning scorer after he shot 38.6% from three point range. He’s an All-ASUN First Team candidate. Cuffee returns from his first season playing as Liberty’s defensive stopper on the perimeter, but with the key losses the Flames have suffered, Cuffee will be counted on for increased leadership and offensive production this season.

Sophomores Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson return and will be expected to enter the starting lineup. Rode started 5 games last season while Caleb Homesley dealt with an injury. He finished the season averaging 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds per game while shooting 36.5% from three in 18.5 minutes per game. Robinson was somewhat of a surprise last year, as many expected him to redshirt entering the season, but he proved he was too talented to sit on the bench. The 6’7″ forward ended up playing 11 minutes per game.

This is a team that lost a lot from last year. Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, and Georgie Pacheco-Sanchez averaged a combined 37 points per game, more than half of their 68.2 ppg. All three are now gone. Blake Preston, a 6’9” forward, is really their lone post player and he will match up against Trevion Williams. Trey has a few backups behind him in Dowuona and freshman Zach Edey, but as we know, they are unproven. Here is what a Sea of Red had to say about their newcomers:

Chris Parker is a grad transfer from Henderson State who joins the Flames and could be expected to slide into the starting lineup for opening night. His play-making ability and experience will be valuable to this year’s team. He’ll look to fill some of the void left by Pacheco-Ortiz.

Liberty also adds four freshmen to this year’s team. Isiah Warfield, a 6-foot-5 guard, is Liberty’s highest rated recruit in school history. The 6-foot-3 Drake Dobbs may be the most ready of the group, and he may be the only true point guard on this year’s roster. Jonathan Jackson, the younger brother of NBA star Justin Jackson, is expected to contribute immediately, as well. 6-foot-7 Micaiah Abii has the potential to be a fan favorite with his length and versatility.

Liberty is almost certainly going to take a step back this season. They lost about as much talent and experience as Purdue lost in the Haas-Edwards-Mathias-Thompson class. That is hard for an Atlantic Sun program to just reload immediately, especially after winning 59 games in two seasons. There is still experience from those two years, however. They have the ability to challenge a Purdue team that is very, very young and inexperienced, especially without Hunter. This is a great game for our talented freshmen guards to get their feet wet.

Mississippi State or Clemson

In Purdue’s second game in Melbourne the Boilers will face either Clemson or Mississippi State. Purdue is 2-3 all-time against Clemson, last playing them in the 2012 ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a 73-61 Purdue road win. Purdue and Clemson have played three times in that event and the Boilers won two of them. Clemson was 16-15 last year like Purdue, but notably had their first EVER win at North Carolina in 60 tries. Shakin’ the Southland offers a preview of their perimeter players as well as their post players.

Purdue and Mississippi State have played just once, a 77-46 Purdue win in El Paso, Texas during the 1984-85 season. They were in the discussion to make last year’s NCAA Tournament at 20-11 and 11-7 in the SEC. They didn’t have many ins of note and they had narrow losses to LSU, Oklahoma, New Mexico State, and Villanova. They lost a pair of guys to the NBA draft as Robert Woodard II and Reggie Perry were both second round selections last week. Of late Mississippi State has been more well known for its women’s program, which was the NCAA runner-up in 2017 and 2018 (can we hire their coach?). Their men’s team made the 2019 tournament for the first time in 10 years though before losing to Liberty. They have not been past the first weekend since their surprise 1996 Final Four run.

This is overall a good tournament for Purdue to play in. The field seems reasonably balanced and a pair of wins would be decent for any NCAA Tournament resume, especially with a limited non-conference slate. There is not one dominant team that is head and shoulders above the rest, but there is no chance for what would be an excellent resume win like Florida State last year. With a young Purdue roster this is the type of early season tournament we need. We don’t want to send these guys to one of the top events in Maui or the Bahamas yet. Let’s get their feet wet and gain some early confidence against good, but not elite competition.