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2022 NCAA Tournament: Why (and why not) Purdue can make the Final Four

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There will be nerves either way.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL / USA TODAY NETWORK

We’re 80 minutes away.

This is the sixth time under Matt Painter Purdue has made the Sweet 16. He has now passed his predecessor, Gene Keady, in that category, as Gene only made it to the second weekend in 1988, 1994, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Getting to the second weekend is both an accomplishment and a tease. Winning two high pressure games in three days is tough. Occasionally, you get a big advantage as a higher seed like Purdue did against Yale and have a relatively easy game, but round 2 games are often wars. We survived ours. Baylor didn’t. Gonzaga, Kansas, and Arizona as No. 1 seeds almost didn’t. Two seeds Auburn and Kentucky are already home, as are three seeds Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Everyone gets a few days now to breathe and scout. There are 358 Division I basketball teams, and 342 are already eliminated. Getting this far is an accomplishment, whether you got a broken bracket to help or not.

While Purdue as a team is solely focused on St. Peter’s (as they should be), we’re fans. We can dare to dream.

Why Purdue Can Make the Final Four

Well, there are several reasons, but I think the largest reason is that Baylor is safely back in Waco, Texas and Kentucky is back in Lexington, Kentucky. Purdue has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (0-7) and has only beaten a No. 2 seed twice (Miami in 1999 and Tennessee in 2019). Someone clearing the top two seeds out of our region, essentially giving us the No. 1 seed, is huge. The other three remaining teams are obviously good teams, but when the original bracket was drawn Kentucky and Baylor looked like major problems, especially if we had to beat them back-to-back in a three day span.

Let’s take a look at Purdue’s Sweet 16 games under Painter:

2009: Connecticut 72, Purdue 60 – This was very a much a “just happy to be here” moment for a very young team. Expectations weren’t high facing the top seeded Huskies. Purdue was competitive, but UConn was the better team and pulled away late before advancing to the Final Four. It was a building experience for the next two years, which were supposed to be THE chances.

2010: Duke 70, Purdue 57 – “What if”. Duke was the No. 1 seed and eventually went on to win the national title. What if Robbie Hummel was healthy? Well, if he was healthy, Purdue is probably a 1 seed instead of a four, and not even in Duke’s region, for starters.

2017: Kansas 98, Purdue 66 – With 15:55 left in the second half Ryan Cline turned the ball with Purdue only trailing 53-51. From that point forward the 1 seeded Jayhawks, who would lose to Oregon in the Elite 8, vaporized us with a 45-15 finish. It was a stunning turn of events in a game that was fairly close into the second half.

2018: Texas Tech 78, Purdue 65 – “What if” part 2. Purdue was its highest seed under Painter as a 2, but the Isaac Haas injury in round 1 vs. Cal State Fullerton left a void in the middle that Purdue could have exploited. It was a gallant effort, but missing one of its top players couldn’t be overcome.

2019: Purdue 99, Tennessee 94 (OT) – The Ryan Cline game. Painter finally breaks the Sweet 16 ceiling in a thrilling game where Purdue lost a big lead, but Cline just kept hitting big shots. It was only the third win as a lower seed under Painter (Arizona in an 8/9 game in 2007 and St. Mary’s in a 7/10 game in 2012).

The 1-4 record is not great, but in four of the five games Purdue was the lower seed. In two of the five games it was missing a critical starter. Neither of those are factors right now. Purdue has the unbelievable gift of playing a 15 seed in the Sweet 16. It is just the third time ever a 15 seed has made it this far.

I refuse to look too far past St. Peter’s though. First, one of the previous two times a 15 seed made it this far was last year, and said 15 seed damn near won, as Oral Roberts lost by two to Arkansas. Second, St. Peter’s can play ball. You don’t accidentally beat Kentucky. Murray State hadn’t lost a game in almost three months and was very good in its own right. The Peacocks have two of the most impressive wins in the tournament, and must be taken seriously.

Still, Purdue is favored though, and you can’t help but peer toward Sunday just a little. Should Purdue advance it will face a North Carolina team it has already beaten or a UCLA team that might be missing Jaime Jaquez. The Bruins struggled in their opening game against 13 seed Akron and North Carolina has been inconsistent at best.

This is Purdue’s best chance in a very, very long time. We know what happened in 2019, but going into that game Virginia was rightly favored. You probably have to go back to 2000, when Purdue also had a broken bracket, to find a year where Purdue reached the second weekend and was favored to advance. Purdue is a 12.5 point favorite in its Sweet 16 game, the only double digit favorite in that round. Then you have the factors mentioned with North Carolina and UCLA. It’s hard to not to get excited.

Finally, Purdue has the stars. Jaden Ivey is likely going to be the best player on the floor in either game. No one else has a Zach Edey. Trevion Williams is coming off of one of the best games of his career. We’ve got three guys that are a tremendous advantage, and role players to go around them like Ethan Morton, who had a fantastic game against Texas.

Why Purdue Can’t Make the Final Four

The short answer is, “because we’re Purdue,” but there are legitimate basketball reasons. St. Peter’s has earned their place in this round and they have absolutely nothing to lose. They have already won the tournament just by getting this far, so they will be playing without any fear at all. They are a strong defensive team and they showed they can get hot from three like they did against Kentucky. They can hold their own on the glass, too.

What if Purdue gets in foul trouble with its bigs? What if Sasha Stefanovic stays cold? What if the turnover bug hits like it did against Iowa in Indy? What if the defensive improvements we have seen here in the postseason fail? Purdue’s adjusted defense on KenPom has improved from the mid 110s to 86th. That’s still 15th out of the 16 remaining teams, ahead of only Miami at 123. Purdue’s struggles at the free throw line have also been well documented. As good as Purdue has been at times, the flaws are known and obvious.

All that applies to every game. Against St. Peter’s, we’re the villain:

I understand the Purdue sentiment of “screw Santa” in the comments there, but the neutrals in the crowd will be backing St. Peter’s. It is also not THAT far from their campus. It is only 92.5 miles from their campus to the Wells Fargo Center, closer than even the United Center to Purdue if we were playing there instead. It is entirely possible this becomes a road game for us.

Should we advance further, UCLA and North Carolina aren’t bad. UCLA was a preseason top 5 team, national title contender, and played in the Final Four a year ago. They are battle tested and more than good enough to beat us. As for North Carolina, that game was on November 20th, more than four months ago. Sasha hit five threes in that game and had 23 points. He is struggling so much right now he has scored only 21 points in his last five games.

Just because you beat someone earlier in the year doesn’t mean you beat them again. We had beaten Iowa twice, remember? Also, who can forget 1988. That team blasted Kansas State by 29 on December 20th of that season, but lost to them in the tournament.

So What Happens?

I really like Purdue’s chances against St. Peter’s, and not because we beat them 11 years ago when all the current players were in elementary school. I think we’re the deeper, better team and honestly Matt Painter is a lot better coach than John Calipari. The Peacocks are a tremendous story and deserve to be taken seriously, but I feel like Purdue wins (but doesn’t cover).

As for UCLA or North Carolina… I have no idea. I don’t have a preference to play either. The Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season and UCLA has that experience from last season. I feel like any Elite Eight game would be a toss up, but most of them are.