Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, March 15, 2016
The Boilermakers have proven they are capable of beating just about any team ? and also struggling against just about any team. Big Ten title dreams danced in the heads of Purdue fans in October. But, that didn?t materialize. Still, the goal of reaching the Final Four remains alive. Is it possible? Maybe. This is a big, tough physical squad anchored by a fleet of what the late Al McGuire used to like to call ?aircraft carriers? in 7-0 A.J. Hammons, 6-9 Caleb Swanigan and 7-2 monster Isaac Haas. No school can match this tall trio of terror.
The keys for Purdue: limiting turnovers and hitting some three-pointers. That makes the effectiveness of the Purdue big men even that much more effective. But while it?s easy to focus on the Boiler brawn, this team will go as far as forwards Vince Edwards and Rapheal Davis take it.
Get my Purdue NCAA capsule below.
No. 5 Purdue vs. No. 12 Little Rock, Thursday, Denver, Midwest
Matt Painter?s NCAA record: 8-8
Last NCAA appearance: 2015, lost to Cincinnati in first round
How I see it going: Purdue has a good shot to reach the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers should overwhelm Little Rock with their size. Next likely would come a second-round game vs. No. 4 Iowa State, which is beatable. The Cyclones are a balanced squad with lots of offensive explosion, featuring seven players who average at least 10 points in the very competitive Big 12. However, Iowa State is without senior guard Naz Mitrou-Long, out since mid-December with hip injuries. Senior forward Georges Niang is a stud, averaging nearly 20 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The balanced attack Iowa State paced the Big 12 in scoring, averaging 81.8 points, but it also gives up the most in the conference at 75.0 ppg. Anything beyond the Sweet 16 would be a bonus, but Purdue could reach the Elite Eight. To do so, it likely will need to beat No. 1 Midwest seed Virginia–and that is doable. After that, No. 2 Michigan State would loom. And that is where the Boilers train would halt.
Key player: Vince Edwards. Yes, senior A.J. Hammons is the 7-0 linchpin, a matchup nightmare who often is unstoppable when he is dialed in. But Edwards is the key. He needs to hit shots and work off the dribble, being a star on the wing. The sophomore also needs to be a big shot maker-if big shots are needed. Edwards showed his big-play ability in the Big Ten title game, scoring 19 points when Hammons was stifled by Michigan State.
Key number: +10.6, Purdue?s rebounding margin. That?s second in the Big Ten to Michigan State. The Boilermakers are a rugged squad that rarely gets beaten on the boards, resulting in extra possessions and fewer shots for opponents. That is a big deal come tourney time. Freshman Caleb Swanigan finished second in the Big Ten in rebounding (8.2), while A.J. Hammons was fourth (8.0).
Know Little Rock: First-year coach Chris Beard has done a whale of a job, improving this program from 13 to 27 wins in one season. The 14-win improvement was the second-most in Division I, as Little Rock is making its first NCAA tourney trip since 2011. The team?s four losses are tied for the fewest in the nation. The Trojans are a deep team that is anchored by a rugged defense that ranks third in Division I (59.8 points per game) and they are led by a strong backcourt. The two leading scorers are senior guards Josh Hagins (12.8 ppg) and Marcus Johnson Jr. (12.7 ppg). Roger Woods is also one to watch.
Read more NCAA Tournament coverage and capsules:
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