Purdue enters tourney match against Vermont with plenty to prove
MILWAUKEE — Purdue will try to erase the sting of last season’s first-round upset when it takes on Vermont on Thursday in a Midwest Region first-round NCAA Tournament contest at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
The Boilermakers were a No. 5 seed last year when they committed 18 turnovers and fell in double-overtime, 85-83 to No. 12 seed Little Rock.
This year, the Boilermakers (25-7) come into the tournament as a No. 4 seed, thanks to winning the Big Ten by two full games and despite being knocked out early in the conference tournament.
Still, the Boilermakers have hit a stride late in the season. They followed an 83-80 loss at Nebraska with six straight victories and have won eight of their last 10 games.
“Our team’s purpose is to get past the first game — there you go,” junior center Isaac Haas said. “After that, we’ll get past the second game, and after that we’ll get past the Sweet 16. It’s a matter of taking it game-by-game.”
Coach Matt Painter had a similar view.
“For us to be able to get a 4, and you look at some of those 5 seeds, there’s a couple of 5s that had unbelievable seasons,” Painter said. “We feel that’s a definite reward for winning our conference by two games.”
Purdue has struggled at times, defensively. The Boilermakers rank near the bottom of the league in turnover differential and are allowing opponents to shoot 41.3 percent from the floor, but they make up for that with an efficient offense, anchored inside by Caleb Swanigan and Haas.
The Big Ten Player of the Year and candidate for National Player of the Year, Swanigan averaged 18.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game this season while Haas contributed 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a night.
They’ll face a Vermont team that is 29-5 and hasn’t lost since falling at Butler on Dec. 21. The Catamounts’ 21-game winning streak is the longest in the country and includes a perfect run through the America East regular season and tournament slates.
“This would be the first game too that we’ll play without a lot of pressure on us,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “That should be a nice relief for our guys, just kind of cut it loose and I think it will give us a chance to play a really good game.”
The Catamounts are a disciplined bunch, averaging just 11 turnovers per game with 13 assists. Six-foot-six freshman Anthony Lamb leads the team with 12.6 points per game while junior Payton Henson, a 6-8 junior follows with 11.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“The Swanigan versus Lamb matchup should be a battle of two really good big men,” Becker said.
The two teams met last season in a nonconference contest, a 107-79 victory for Purdue in West Lafayette.
“We were able to score on them last year, but I haven’t seen a lot of tape,” Becker said. “I know Michigan beat them twice, Michigan likes to shoot a lot of 3s, so we’ll start digging into the tape tonight and start to have a better understanding of Purdue as we move toward Thursday.”
The winner will face either No. 5 Iowa State or No. 12 Middle Tennessee on Saturday.