Our friends over at Hammer and Rails spared a few minutes to give us the low-down on what to expect this Thursday as the Cincinnati Bearcats take on the Purdue Boilermakers in the
first second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Down the Drive: The Bearcats were on a nice little 5-game winning streak prior to their conference tournament, and the fanbase was finally starting to believe. Can you describe the mood of Purdue fans coming into this week's game?
Hammer & Rails: It has been a whirlwind. We came back from Maui with two good wins (over Missouri and BYU) then beat NC State and we were thinking big. Then December happened. Everyone knows about the losses to North Florida (where Purdue led by 7 with 3 minutes left and completely collapsed) and Gardner Webb (Purdue fell behind by 20 after being tied at halftime, but still had a shot to tie on the final possession), but the Boilers were equally ugly in losses to Vanderbilt and a terrible final 15 minutes against Notre Dame.
This team rebounded though. Kendall Stephens hit a near miracle three to tie the game and send it to OT at Penn State and Purdue went 11-4 after that moment before the Big Ten Tournament. We turned Mackey Arena back into a fortress and winning in Bloomington is always fun. I think we’re all elated that we even made the tournament after looking so bad in December, but, as always, we would like more.
DTD: What expectations, if any, were placed on the Purdue program before or during this season?
H&R: Even through the roller coaster we’re pretty much exactly where I thought we would be: back in the NCAA Tournament with a legitimate chance to win a game. We’re still very young, Jon Octeus is the lone senior and he was an unexpected last minute addition when he did not get into UCLA’s graduate program. He didn’t even join the program until after practice started, but he has been a perfect fit. Our other two upperclassmen, Rapheal Davis and A.J. Hammons, finally became leaders and we have relied on regular contributions from three freshmen in Vince Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and P.J. Thompson.
We’re not a team of one-and-dones or elite talent, but finally, this group got back to playing hard-nosed Purdue basketball. They defend well, get after lose balls, and are not afraid to win a game ugly. It is like a classic Gene Keady team that plays team-oriented basketball because it is not going to out-talent other teams. That has made them a lot of fun to watch once things came together.
DTD: On to the matchup: If you had to describe the strengths of this year's Boilermaker squad, what are they?
H&R: They don’t quit. They are gritty and anyone can chip in on a given night. Bryson Scott has sat most of the Big Ten season for reasons unknown, but got unleashed for a one-night performance against Indiana and played like a beast let from his cage. With Hammons anchoring the middle and swatting everything within 5 feet of the basket we have guys like Octeus and Davis that can hassle players on the perimeter. Against Penn State in Chicago we were getting beat, but the defensive intensity simply worse down a team playing it third game in five days.
Also, having two seven footers that are interchangeable is very nice. We like to get the ball to them on the low block and they are very good about either scoring or drawing fouls. Only a handful of times have they both been in foul trouble.
DTD: And weaknesses? When Purdue has lost this year, has it been for a consistent reason?
H&R: We are not a strong shooting team from the perimeter. Dakota Mathias and Kendall Stephens are the main threats from long range, but can be streaky. Davis has been much better offensively, but can be contained. We can have moments where it looks like we are running what I call the "clogged toilet" offense, which consists of passing the ball around looking for a way to get the ball in to Hammons/Haas. If that doesn’t work we often jack an ill-advised three. Because of this, we’re awful against the zone.
Also, when Hammons and Haas both get in foul trouble we get very small in the post in a hurry. We can struggle with turnovers at times and we have lacked consistency even from minute to minute. I would sya we’ve only played one "complete" game, and that was against Indiana in West Lafayette.
DTD: Is there an X-factor or specific player that might sway this game one way or another for the Boilermakers?
H&R: Scott, if he plays. He has been in Painter’s doghouse multiple times and has a lot of DNP- Coaches Decision. When he plays under control he is a nasty defender and a speedy guard that can get to the basket. He hasn’t played much at all since the first IU game, however, so who knows.
Also, look for Vince Edwards from your own back yard. He is a freshman from Middletown, OH who has looked like a very special player, but he is still young. He’s going to be excellent for us in a year or two and he is probably our most versatile player. He can play in or out, rebound, shoot threes, pass well, and run the break. Twice he has been the Big Ten Freshman of the Week. He can definitely turn a game if he hits a few threes and gets some putbacks.
DTD: Is there anything else Cincinnati fans should know about Purdue before Thursday's matchup?
H&R: We have an interesting streak. Purdue owns the longest active streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with at least one victory. This is our 15th appearance since 1994 and in everyone since then we have won at least our opening game leading into this one. We haven’t exactly beaten up on Sisters of the Poor and blind, either. This is our fifth time in one of the "toss-up" 8/9 or 7/10 games. We were also in the 6/11 game twice more, with only a top 3 once since 1998. It has been nice to go and at least win one game. the last time we lost an opening game was 1993 to Rhode Island, when Matt Painter was a player instead of our coach.
DTD: Finally, who wins and why?
H&R: This is going to be a rock fight. Both teams are not afraid to get dirty and I think Purdue fans respect that. I expect a close game in the low 60s and hopefully we find a way to pull it off.
Check out our answers to their questions here: http://www.hammerandrails.com/2015/3/18/8238619/2015-ncaa-tournament-a-q-a-with-down-the-drive