March Madness predictions: Purdue-Little Rock a sweet 12-5 opening-round game
Once again the selection committee served up a quartet of intriguing first round matchups on the 5-12 line in the bracket.
It’s difficult to select just one game capable of producing thrilling action and upset possibilities (we recommend watching them all), but the Midwest Regional battle in Denver between No. 5 Purdue (26-8) and No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock (29-4) is enticing.
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First the facts: The Boilermakers finished 12-6 (3rd) in the Big Ten, which was the fifth best conference (out of 32) this season, and put seven teams in the NCAA tournament (tying the ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12). Purdue is 10th in KenPom and 15th in RPI.
The Trojans finished 17-3 (1st) in the Sun Belt, which was the 17th best conference. They won the lone bid by defeating Louisiana-Monroe 70-50 in the title game. Little Rock is 47th in KenPom and 42nd in RPI.
Here are three points to ponder when the Boilermakers and Trojans meet on Thursday on TBS:
Purdue is huge - Point guard P.J. Thompson is 5-10, but the rest of the starting lineup in the five-point loss to Michigan State on Sunday looked like this: 6-6, 6-8, 6-9, 7-0. A.J. Hammons, the 7-footer, leads Purdue with 14.9 points per game. The Boilermakers bring 7-2 Isaac Haas off the bench. Because of this tremendous size, it’s no surprise that Purdue excels on the backboards - third in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, 30th in offensive). Little Rock is a below average rebounding team on both ends.
Overall, the Boilermakers’ defensive metrics are impressive. They’re top 20 in points allowed per possession. But a closer look reveals, over the last month, certain NCAA tournament caliber teams found soft spots to exploit. Indiana gashed Purdue for 1.24 points per possession, Maryland scored 1.20 and Wisconsin scored 1.19.
Little Rock can offset Purdue’s size advantage with the 3-point shot. The Trojans knocked down 38.7 percent against Division I opponents, which is 22nd in the nation.
Little Rock is stingy - The Trojans surrendered only 59.6 points per game this season, 2nd in the nation, and 35th in defensive efficiency. They prefer a deliberate pace (345th in tempo), force a healthy batch of turnovers, defend the rim and 3-point arc with equal aplomb. The Trojans are comfortable having lengthy possessions on offense and defense, but will look to score in transition when the opportunity arises. Purdue plays at a pace slower than the national average as well, so Little Rock prefers a game where both teams score in the high 50s or low 60s.
The guards hold the keys - This is repetitive, sure, but a team is only going so far in March with shaky backcourt play. Terrific guards are equalizers for the schools from the one-bid conferences. There simply aren’t enough hulking forwards and gargantuan centers to go around. Remember these names: Josh Hagins, a senior and Marcus Johnson, a junior. While they are playing in their first NCAA tournament - Little Rock increased its win total by 16 games in coach Chris Beard’s first season - they have been consistent and efficient throughout this record-setting season. Each has an offensive rating of 116 and they combined to bury 113 3-pointers.
Purdue shooting guard Raphael Davis is slumping. Over the last nine games he’s 12-of-47 from the field, 3-of-18 on 3-pointers and has scored in double figures once.
Here's a closer look at the game: