After Saturday’s historic trouncing of Villanova to advance to their third consecutive Sweet 16, the Purdue Boilermakers seemed to exit the court with a sort of confidence only seen in teams that go deep in March.
The Boilers (25-9, 16-4 Big Ten) are looking to make a deep March run a reality on Thursday night as they take on the No. 2 seeded Tennessee Volunteers in the South Regional Semifinals at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
The further a team goes in the tournament, the better the competition it can expect, and with Tennessee (31-5, 15-3 SEC) Purdue can expect its toughest test thus far in the tournament. The Boilers will be attempting to earn a spot in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000 and only the fifth time in team history.
The Volunteers have, quite simply, a daunting starting lineup. Purdue hasn't likely played an opponent as athletic as Tennessee all season long, and a quick brush over the Volunteers' starting lineup indicates how challenging this matchup will be for the Boilermakers.
Tennessee is led offensively by junior forward Grant Williams, who averages 18.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and senior guard Admiral Schofield, who averages 16.4 points per game. To make matters more challenging for the Boilermakers, both Schofield and Williams are 6-foot-6 or taller and both players are decent outside shooters.
“You just gotta play harder, if you play harder and you’re willing to be tougher,” Purdue sophomore center Matt Haarms said. “If you’re getting in the guys’ legs they can’t jump over you, it’s just that easy. It’s going to come down to boxing out.”
Arguably more daunting than their size, however, is the tremendous offensive balance that the Volunteers have. Five Volunteers average 10 or more points per game, compared with only two Purdue players who can say the same: junior guard Carsen Edwards and senior guard Ryan Cline.
Sure, the Volunteers don’t have one of the best scorers in the country like Purdue, but Purdue doesn’t quite have the offensive balance that Tennessee has. For the Boilers to win, ball movement and knocking down outside shots will be imperative as usual, but even more so in this matchup.
“There’s a lot of teams left in the NCAA (Tournament) that are not super athletic,” said sophomore guard Nojel Eastern. “It’s just the way we play within each other. If we believe in each other and just do what we do, and help each other out with team defense then I feel like we can be successful.”
What will also inevitably become a factor in this matchup is the proximity of both schools to Louisville, where the game will be played.
Purdue is only 184 miles from Louisville, while Tennessee is only 247 miles from the city, meaning that the two fan bases will likely have large turnouts at the KFC Yum! Center.
“You see it a lot with our exempt tournaments, you really see our fan base come,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter. “Normally — not always, but normally — we’ll have the most fans.”
Purdue and Tennessee actually met last season in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, a game in which the Boilers fought hard but fell 78-75 in a close overtime affair. Prior to that, the Boilers’ last win over the Volunteers came in 2009 at the height of the “Baby Boilers” era.
Then-No. 6 Purdue narrowly beat then-No.9 Tennessee 73-72. The Boilermakers are 2-2 all-time in games against the Volunteers.
In the Sweet 16, the Boilers have an all-time record of 4-7, having lost their last four Sweet 16 games while looking to get over the regional semifinal hump on Saturday night.
Purdue takes on Tennessee on Thursday night in Louisville, with coverage beginning on TBS at 7:30 p.m. Brian Anderson, Chris Webber, and Allie LaForce will call the action courtside.