Wednesday night, No. 5 men’s basketball is set to face Purdue in a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game that saw the Cavaliers down the Boilermakers 80-75 in overtime. This year, however, features two vastly different squads from last year’s thriller.
As many Cavalier fans are aware of, Virginia (7-0, 1-0 ACC) comes into the bout having lost its three main scorers from last year — guards De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — who combined for 59 of the Cavaliers’ 80 points in the Elite Eight. Nevertheless, returning for Virginia are senior forward Mamadi Diakite and sophomore guard Kihei Clark, who combined last year for “The Play” that tied the game at the buzzer.
Purdue (4-3, 0-0 Big Ten), has similarly lost crucial pieces from last year’s Elite Eight run. Guard Carsen Edwards — who exploded for 42 points on 53 percent shooting from three against Virginia — was by far the Boilermakers’ top offensive threat, averaging 24.3 points per game last season before declaring for the NBA draft. Furthermore, guard Ryan Cline — who shot 42 percent from the three-point arc last year — graduated, leaving Purdue without its two top scorers from last year.
Overall, Wednesday night’s contest will be one very different from the star-studded battle last March, as both teams still look to solidify their identities heading into conference play.
Players to Watch
Sophomore guard Kihei Clark
Picking up from where he left off last year, Clark has once again been a dominant on-ball defender for the Cavaliers this season. As such, the Woodland Hills, Calif. native will once again be called on to handle yet another dynamic guard in Purdue sophomore Eric Hunter Jr. Hunter Jr. has been a shifty ball-handler for the Boilermakers, weaving through defenders with his 6-foot-4, 175-pound frame, and will arguably be the best guard Clark has faced this season. If Clark can slow down Hunter Jr., Virginia will be able to quell Purdue’s high-octane offense.
Junior forward Jay Huff
Over the Cavaliers’ first seven games, Huff has shown his improved athleticism and ability to work opponents in the paint. However, going against Huff in the paint Wednesday night is 7-foot-3 Purdue junior center Matt Haarms, who has had a quietly strong start to the season. Given Haarms’ size, Huff is expected to play a huge role in silencing the Dutchman, who is shooting 70 percent from the field, while also using his developing physicality to score in the paint and grab offensive rebounds.
Purdue junior guard Nojel Eastern
Eastern, along with Haarms, is one of the two starters from last year’s Elite Eight to return to West Lafayette. The 2018-19 Big Ten All-Defensive team selection came into the year with high hopes, as he looked to once again anchor the Boilermakers defense while serving as a strong offensive threat.
This year, however, the player that many Purdue fans looked to lead their team has failed to materialize after Eastern suffered a left wrist injury in the season opener against Green Bay. While Eastern has started every game since and averaged 23.6 minutes per game, the Evanston, Ill. native has only averaged 3.7 points per contest. Nevertheless, with four days of rest after a back-to-back in the Emerald Coast Classic, Eastern is still very much a threat and could break out in front of a raucous home crowd against Virginia.
Virginia’s Keys to the Game
Break through Purdue’s defense
It is no secret that Virginia’s offense has struggled to get into a rhythm this season, shooting just 40 percent from the field and averaging 11.7 turnovers per game. However, if the Cavaliers want to defeat a Purdue team that is ranked seventh in the country by KenPom in defensive efficiency, their offense must fire on all cylinders. Huff and Diakite will need to finish in the paint over a proven shot-blocker in Haarms, while guards in sophomore Kody Stattmann, freshman Casey Morsell and junior Tomas Woldetensae must provide strong perimeter shooting. While this is easier said than done, if there is one team that knows how to bounce back it is Virginia.
Shut down Haarms
Haarms — who was named to the 2019 Kareem Abdul-Jabaar Award preseason watch list for best center in the country — has transitioned into a greater offensive role for the Boilermakers this season, averaging 11.7 points per game in 23.7 minutes per contest. With his imposing frame, Haarms will be tough to handle in the post, and a combination of Huff, Diakite and Key — if he returns from injury — will often have to double team Haarms. Furthermore, the aforementioned trio will need to keep Haarms off the glass, especially offensively, to prevent second chance points for Purdue.
Virginia vs. Purdue tips-off at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday night in West Lafayette, Ind. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.