With only two weekends left in the season, the stakes are at an all-time high this week. The Kansas Jayhawks match up with the Purdue Boilermakers in what is likely to be the 2nd most entertaining game of this round (sorry guys, but UCLA-Kentucky might be the best game of the entire tournament if it lives up to the hype), and so I just had to reach out to our friends over at Hammer & Rails, the SB Nation site that covers the Purdue. We’ve already posted the podcast episode we recorded with them earlier, and now we have the Q&A with Travis Miller, one of the managers over at H&R.
Editor’s Note: There is a bit of overlap in a few of the questions, mainly because Travis was so helpful that he not only answered my Q&A questions, but he also commented on the show note topics for the podcast. I didn’t want to waste any of the material, so rephrased the topics as questions and included them in this extra-long Q&A.
RCT: These teams have played each other three prior times in the NCAA Tournament, with Kansas winning the last two, including the high-powered finale for Purdue star Robbie Hummel. What do you remember most from that 2012 meeting, and do you think there is any way that this game matches the excitement of that one? Also, while this may be a sore subject, but Tyshawn Taylor was absolutely right to dunk at the end of that game, right?
H&R: I don’t have a problem with the dunk. I love the exclamation point dunk myself even if it did open the door for a last gasp three-point attempt from Ryne Smith. The game itself was of the type that I have seen all too often over the years and I have come to hate. Be it in football or basketball, I have seen too many times where Purdue is the better team for 39 minutes only to lose it in the last minute. Hummel was amazing in that game. It looked like he was going to go out guns blazing, but he cooled off in the second half and Kansas creeped back enough to steal it late. Just a gut-wrenching loss from a Purdue perspective because we trailed for what, 23 seconds total?
RCT: The Midwest region turned into the Big Ten/Big 12 party, with 3 teams from each conference in the region. Were you a bit disappointed when the bracket came out and you saw all those familiar foes crammed into the same location?
H&R: I knew it was a tricky draw, mostly because we would probably have to beat Kansas, then Louisville in Kansas City. Louisville waiting there as the 2 seed was a bit daunting because we played them in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this year on their floor and lost. It was probably our worst game of the season, too. We trailed throughout, were down by 19 in the second half, and generally looked awful before a late rally got it to 4 with about a minute and a half left.
Then there is Michigan. The Wolverines got us twice and are probably the worst matchup for us because Wagner and Wilson can draw our bigs away from the basket. We had solved them a bit in the second game in DC, but PJ Thompson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 18 seconds left that would have sealed it. We were leading by 2 at the time and they came down and sent it to overtime. If we were to get past Kansas (a very big IF) we kind of want a third shot at them, but maybe not.
RCT: What did you see in the first two games that gives hope or has you worried going forward?
H&R: I really liked Purdue’s poise against Iowa State. The last two year we have blown big leads and thrown away first round games. It looked like we were going to do the same against Iowa State. The Cyclones took the lead with 3:11 left after Purdue had led by 19. We all thought it was happening again, but P.J. Thompson hit a big three, then Swanigan and Edwards added baskets for a critical 7-0 run to put us back up 5. For once we actually got better when it mattered most in an NCAA Tournament game instead of folding. It was refreshing to see.
RCT: Are you at all concerned about having to play the Jayhawks in what is essentially their home away from home?
H&R: Oh absolutely. This is going to be a virtual road game for us and you guys are kind of good at home since you’re approximately 3,501,209-4 all time at Allen Fieldhouse. I do like that Purdue is battle tested this year though. We played at Louisville. We won at Maryland, at Indiana, and at Michigan State, which are three of the toughest places to win in the Big Ten. We even won at the Bryce Jordan Mausoleum!
Okay, that last one is a joke about Penn State and how they have a giant arena that is always 75% empty, but it can still be a tough place to play because they lull you to sleep with no atmosphere. In general, Purdue has done well on the road unless you count being 0-2 west of the Mississippi at Iowa and Nebraska.
RCT: State your case for Caleb Swanigan as Player of the Year.
H&R: Caleb Swanigan is a human double-double. The only players in college basketball history with more double-doubles in a single season are some guys named Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin; they were both National Players of the Year and Caleb could pass them on that list if Purdue reaches the Final Four. Getting 28 double-doubles in 34 games is insane. He has shown remarkable consistency to the point we are shocked when he doesn’t get a double-double. Even then, we had a game like at Penn State where he had a 10 point, 9 rebound game and looked just awful, but it was still a 10 and 9. How many teams can take for granted that a guy is going to throw up a 15 and 10 every night regardless of opponent? He has had four games this season where he had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds! It’s just amazing.
RCT: Break down the game for us - what does Purdue (not) do well?
H&R: If we have just one of our bigs in and you throw a double team on them they can be prone to turnovers. What scares me the most, however, is that Haas and Swanigan are terrible defenders on the perimeter. Michigan beat us twice because Mo Wagner and D.J. Wilson could drag them away from the bask with their ability to shoot threes. Wagner was particularly proficient at this. This opened up the lane for drives to the basket, and Kansas has more than enough elite guards to slice us up if a post player can pull Haas away defensively.
RCT: Who is the “X-Factor” for Purdue?
H&R: I think it will be Vince Edwards. He is Purdue’s most versatile player as a 6’8” forward that can shoot the three, drive, rebound, and has decent post moves. He is an adequate defender too and needs to have a good game on one of the 6’8” guards outside. He has averaged 20 points per game in four career NCAA Tournament games, so March is his time.
RCT: There has been a lot of discussion about the frontcourt matchup heavily favoring Purdue, but I think the main concern among Kansas fans has been foul trouble. Looking on KenPom, it doesn’t appear that this Purdue team is especially skilled at getting to the line. Is that actually the case?
H&R: It really depends on how the game is being called. Swanigan and Haas absorb a lot of contact. Some officials call it, some don’t. Both have had games with double-digit free throw attempts and if the officials start calling all the contact they receive Kansas could be in trouble. Haas is just so big he often takes more contact because the officials just assume he can shrug it off. That leads to him missing some easy shots because 2-3 guys are hanging off of him. I think it really comes down to what officials are calling because they have not been consistent all year. I think a lot of officials just don’t know how to call a guy who is 7’2” 300 pounds, yet is still as strong as Haas is.
RCT: What is the key matchup to this game? There has been lots of talk about Frank Mason vs Caleb Swanigan, but since they won’t match up directly with each other, I’m more interested in players that will actually affect each other.
H&R: I want to see Vince Edwards against Josh Jackson. Vince is our most versatile player. He can play inside or out and his size gives him the best chance to defend Jackson. Vince is how I always dreamed of being able to use Hummel, only he is more athletic. He can play the 3 or the 4, rebound, drive, shoot the three, etc. In four career NCAA Tournament games he has averaged a 20-9-4 and has generally been Purdue’s most important player. That said, he has had some rough games this year. He was scoreless at Maryland and only had a single point at Louisville.
Before this season it was released that he wanted to be called Vincent instead of Vince. I have joked that Vincent is really his evil twin that sucks at basketball who locks Vince up in a building on campus before a game. We need Vince to be there, not Vincent.
RCT: Prediction Time! How do you see this game ending up? Does Swanigan take charge down low and impose his will, or will the Kansas backcourt light it up and push the Jayhawks into the Elite Eight?
H&R: Porque no los dos? I think this game is decided by who gets to play their game. I am very scared of what Kansas can do offensively with Haas and Swanigan on the court at the same time. That said, I think Purdue can definitely punish the Jayhawks down low when we have the ball and both are on the floor. If we’re doing that and Kansas throws a double team on the post we have to be able to kick out and hit the three. Purdue was the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten. Ryan Cline, Dakota Mathias, Thompson, Swanigan, and Vince Edwards all shoot better than 40% from three.
Carsen Edwards, our freshman PG, is also an irrational confidence guy in that he plays without fear. Sometimes that is great and he can hit a big three or score on a drive. Other times his shot selection is troublesome. He is a bit of an x-factor because he is going to be an excellent guard before his career is over, but he still plays like a freshman. My favorite moment for him this season came at Maryland. With Swanigan fouled out and Purdue down one he drove to the basket and was fouled with three seconds left. Facing “The Wall” as they call it (Maryland’s intimidating student section) he hit both free throws for a one-point win. The kid has a ton of poise for a freshman.
Purdue’s three-point shooting has been modest for several games now. We haven’t had the game where all our guys are hitting and we knock down 13-15 threes. We’re capable of it though. That is when Purdue’s offense is great. Haas and Swanigan have proven that they cannot be guarded one-on-one. When that happens, teams tend to double them. If they kick it out and we start raining in threes it could be a long night because then what do you do? Do you leave Haas and Swanigan to punish you in the paint or do risk giving up open threes?
That’s where a guy like Cline is so important. He is essentially a three-point specialist (only 24 2-point attempts this season after just 12 last year). He is totally capable of the “I am just going to drop in 4 threes and give you something else to worry about” game. I think for Purdue to win we’re going to need to hit about 10-12 threes, get Kansas in foul trouble with Haas and Swanigan, and Edwards is going to have to win the battle with Jackson.
RCT: How has this run to the Sweet 16 been relative to your expectations for the year? Would losing be a monumental disappointment, or would you be ok with the results to this point?
H&R: I think Purdue’s goal coming into the season was a Big Ten title and a Sweet 16. We knew Swanigan was going to be good, but we never imagined he was this good. It has been a great ride and the biggest disappointment would be not getting to see him play in a Purdue uniform any longer because there is little doubt he is going pro after this season. He has been a joy to watch. I wouldn’t say losing to kansas is a monumental disappointment because you’re Kansas. You’re one of the best in the game. It would sting because Indiana beat you and we didn’t, but there is no shame in losing to a program of this caliber at this level.
That said, Purdue has long been stagnant right here when it comes to college basketball. We’re usually good. Heck, we’ve been in the AP top 25 for two straight years continuously now. We can win the Big Ten (our 23 titles there is the most ever) and we can reach the second weekend of the tournament with modest regularity (5 times in the last 20 years). We go into each season expecting to make the tournament, but we can’t seem to break through to that Final Four. We have had very good teams fall short. We have had injuries. We have had bad matchups. We have run into the team that inexplicably got red hot (VCU, anyone?) We are desperate to finally break through, and it doesn’t help that we share a state with a program that thinks it is you guys, but hasn’t really been much better than us in the last 25 years.
It sucks, and I want to see a Final Four before I die. We have waited 37 years. That’s enough.
RCT: BONUS - We need your help to settle a controversial debate here at RCT. Is a hot dog a sandwich?
H&R: What godless heathen thinks it is a sandwich? Probably this guy. (Editor’s Note: NSFW)
A big thanks to Travis for helping us out with this extended version of the Q&A today. Don’t forget to check out all the coverage of the game over on Hammer & Rails, it’s definitely top notch even if it biased towards the wrong team.
Also check out my responses to their questions as both sides prep for what’s sure to be an intense Sweet 16 matchup.