DOUGHERTY: Cooling off the Boilermakers in the Elite Eight

How Virginia can stop a Purdue team that has amazed with offense in the tournament

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Virginia Coach Tony Bennett is one win away from his first ever Final Four berth and the Cavaliers' first since 1984.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

One game stands in between Virginia Coach Tony Bennett and his first-ever Final Four. A gritty, emotional win against No. 12 seed Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen has his Cavaliers (32-3, 16-2 ACC) poised to make a trip to Minneapolis, Minn. for a shot at the program’s first ever national championship.

Standing in his way is another coach criticized for his lack of success in the NCAA Tournament — Matt Painter of Purdue. Painter’s Boilermakers (26-9, 16-4 B10) are coming off arguably the most exciting game of this year’s tournament, in which they knocked off an elite Tennessee team 99-94 in overtime. 

Where the 53-49 victory over Oregon was a rock fight from start to finish, Saturday’s matchup against Purdue has the looks of a shootout. The Boilermakers have the fourth ranked offense in KenPom, fueled by one of the best players in the country and a plethora of shooters and big men, who play both ends of the floor.

Bennett versus Painter in the South Region Elite Eight will be a willful fight of two coaches looking to validate their coaching expertise after years of Tournament exits. Let’s break down how Virginia can best attack Purdue to punch its ticket to Minneapolis. 

Slow down Carsen Edwards

For the first time since their last matchup against Duke in early February, Virginia will be taking on a top-10 player in the country Saturday in Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards. Averaging 23.8 points per game, Edwards is a threat to burn a defense every time he touches the ball.

Standing at 6-foot-1, Edwards uses his quickness to create offense for himself each time he gets the ball on the perimeter. He drives to the hoop if given space, pushes the ball in transition and comes off screens when he’s off the ball to get open looks from deep. He has willed Purdue to all of its tournament wins, including giving one of the best individual performances of 2019 with 42 points against Villanova in the Round of 32. 

It’s probably going to be next to impossible to stop Edwards from getting buckets, but he can be slowed down. The Cavaliers can keep him from scoring in the paint by playing solid help defense as they are used to, and Bennett can employ his elite shot blocker in junior forward Mamadi Diakite to protect the rim against his drives.

Even if Virginia keeps Edwards out of the paint, he’ll still be comfortable on the perimeter, as he takes 52.9 percent of his shots from three-point range. He averages over 10 three-point attempts per game, and though he only makes 34.6 percent of them, he can end a game fast if he gets hot.

Freshman guard Kihei Clark will be the Bennett’s primary tool to keep Edwards frustrated. Clark’s latest act in a season of playing suffocating defense was limiting Oregon junior guard Peyton Pritchard to 3-for-12 shooting and only one three-pointer in Thursday’s matchup. Clark will have to stay active on the perimeter and force Edwards into bad shots. If he can get Edwards out of a rhythm, Purdue’s entire offense will falter.

Attack Purdue’s guards on offense

While KenPom has Purdue ranked as a top-30 defense, the Boilermaker guards have struggled on the defensive end in the tournament. Edwards and senior guard Ryan Cline have the lowest defensive ratings of Purdue’s main rotation players, and multiple opposing guards have scored in double figures against them in the tournament. 

Because he will likely be matched up with Cline, junior guard Ty Jerome could have another big game for Virginia. Jerome has been one of Virginia’s best players in the tournament, scoring in double figures in all three games from multiple levels. Since Purdue has a solid rim protector in 7-foot-3 sophomore center Matt Haarms, Jerome will be important with his ability to create mid-range and three-point attempts for himself.

Clark has begun to come into his own offensively during the tournament, most recently scoring a critical 12 points against Oregon’s pressure. Meanwhile, junior guard Kyle Guy has still been struggling with his shot in the tournament but has been known to shoot his way out of slumps in the past. They will both likely be chased around by a fast Edwards all night but could find plenty of open looks from the perimeter by coming off screens and forcing him to fight through them.

Staying active on the glass

Despite being undersized against Oregon, Virginia won the rebounding battle with the Ducks. Diakite had nearly a third of the Cavaliers’ boards with 11, but the entire starting lineup chipped in by getting tough boards and limited Oregon’s possessions.

Virginia will once again be tasked with beating an elite rebounding team — Oregon was 36th nationally in total rebounds and Purdue is 34th. Boards fuel the Boilermakers success, as seen in their 26-point win over Villanova in which they outrebounded the Wildcats 37 to 22

While Purdue isn’t quite as big as Oregon on average, Painter’s lineup is deep and features a host of players standing around 6-foot-6 and Haarms, of course. Sophomore guard Nojel Eastern and senior forward Grady Eifert both pull down over five rebounds per game along with Haarms, which feeds into the controlling the slow tempo the team likes to run at.

The game could very possibly be decided by rebounding wings, and Virginia sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter and junior guard Braxton Key are built similar to Eastern and Eifert. Since Diakite will be undersized against Haarms, Hunter and Key will need to crash the boards effectively to control Virginia’s possessions as they did against Oregon. Having pulled down six rebounds against Oregon, Jerome can also be an x-factor if he can continue his success on the glass.

In a game that has the looks of an instant classic, Virginia will have to cut off Purdue’s lifelines to have a shot at the Final Four. Taking Edwards out of the game and fighting for rebounds will likely be the only way the Cavaliers can take down the incredibly well-coached Boilermakers.

Luckily for the Cavaliers, they also have the coaching necessary to cut down the nets next week. Saturday’s showdown pits two teams that will be fighting hard for the love of their underappreciated coach. 

Virginia tips off against Purdue at 8:49 p.m. in Louisville, Ky. 

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