NCAA Tournament Round 2: Purdue vs. Iowa State
Purdue fans can finally breathe a sigh of relief. After two disappointing years in a row, Purdue advances past the first round. With a pesky 13th seeded Vermont behind them, things start to get real.
It's always a little amusing when people talk about optimal paths to a Final Four. Sure, there are better and worse positions to be in (I'd rather be a three than a four, I'd rather be a 10 than an eight or nine), but after the first round, there are no cupcakes remaining. Everyone playing for a Sweet Sixteen birth has earned that right. Teams in the Round of 32 are good, solid teams. And while some may be stronger than others, there are no easy lifts to advance, and things only get exponentially harder from there.
Case in point is Purdue's second round opponent, Iowa State. Iowa State is a talented, yet flawed team. As I tweeted Sunday when the brackets were announced (much to the chagrin of Iowa State fans), Iowa State is good, but not scary. A scary team, in my opinion, is a team that you feel like you have a less than 10% chance of beating. According to fivethirtyeight, Purdue has a 54% chance of winning. While that is a slight advance to Purdue, the game is essentially a coin flip. Both teams should enter the game thinking they have a good chance of winning.
Making this coin flip more intriguing is the fact that these teams are in many ways opposite in their style of play. Iowa State is known for their guard play, particularly Monte Morris (more on him later). Purdue, on the other hand, is known for playing inside out. However, these two teams are alike in some ways (both shoot as a team a hair over 40% from 3-point), and the game will come down to who is able to play their game, and enforce their will - and style of play - on their opponent.
Iowa State is very top heavy. They have five players who average 30 or more minutes per game per game (rounding Deonte Burton up from 29.4 minutes per game), and have six players who have played in all 34 games. They have four players who average double figure points per game, and four players who average at least three 3-point attempts per game (and another who averages 2.8 per.)
The 3-point shooting should sound very familiar to Purdue fans (Iowa State has shot 837 3-pointers this season; Purdue has 729 attempts.) Iowa State drives its offense through it's exceptional guard play, and they are capable of getting red-hot from distance. If they do - like they did against Kansas this year when they became the first visiting team in 51 games to win at Phog Allen (54 total home wins in a row) - Purdue had better be able to match them 3-for-3 else the game is going to get out of hand quick.
Matching up against Purdue's size in the paint will be a key factor for Iowa State. They don't have a single player over 6'8'' that plays any significant minutes. Purdue, and Isaac Haas in particular, will have to pound the ball inside and finish at the rim. But they do have size in another way: Deonte Burton is a 'guard' who rolls in at 6'5'' 250. He's averaging 14.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He is a handful in every sense of the word. I imagine Vincent Edwards will match up against him. Vince has been up and down on defense this year (mostly down, to be honest), so he will have to put in a strong effort to keep the Cyclones' 2nd best player in check.
Joining Burton in the backcourt is redshirt senior Nazareth Mitrou-Long. He's averaging over 15 points per game to go with 4.6 rebounds. The Alabama native once went for 37 points in a game this season (against Drake, but still; he made eight 3-pointers that game.)
Matt Thomas is a little taller and leaner than Long, and probably the Cyclone's greatest 3-point threat. He shoots 44% from distance and has made seven 3-pointers in a game twice this season, both times against NCAA Tournament teams (Kansas State and Oklahoma State.) I'm guessing Dakota Mathias will match up against him, and in doing so, will give up a little bit of height. Whoever is guarding him will have to not give him much room, else Purdue will pay the price.
And that brings us to Monte Morris, the 2017 Big 12 Conference tournament MVP. He really is a fantastic player who will be cashing an NBA paycheck some day soon. The Michigan native is a lithe 6'3'' 175lbs, but don't be mistaken: he is a tough player. He's a top-5 player in the stacked Big 12 this year, and would probably get even more press if he didn't play in the same conference as Frank Mason. Nonetheless, he will be a handful for Purdue's guards. Morris has failed to reach double figures in scoring only four times this season. He's a high-volume shooter, attempting at least 10 shots in every game except three. His shooting is the ultimate bellwether of Iowa State's success: he's shot less than 40% from the field is all but three of ISU's losses, including five losses where he shot less than 30% from the field. Did I mention that he can rebound as well? He has one triple double this year, and missed a second one by one rebound in another game. He had 19-8-8 against Nevada in the first round, so he comes to play.
So how does Purdue win? Iowa State's Head Coach Steve Prohm has talked about pushing the pace against Purdue...which would work against a typical Purdue team, but this team is anything but typical. In fact, Purdue averages nearly the same number of possessions per game as Iowa State (73.2 vs 72.) Purdue is comfortable picking up the pace, and its guards - Carsen Edwards in particular - are capable of taking advantage. But the real key for Purdue will be whether or not they can pick up the perimeter defense against Iowa State and hold them to 35% or less shooting from distance. On offense, they'll have to protect the ball, taking extra care to make smart entry passes into the post (in other words, the opposite of the first half against Vermont.) If they can prevent Iowa State from shooting them out of the gym and keep turnovers under control, they should have a good chance to win.
I don't expect either team to run away with the game, but this will be a challenge for Purdue. And despite Purdue being the higher seed and supposedly having geographic advantage with the #4 seed, Iowa State fans have been out en masse (it helps that the game is played less than six hours from the ISU campus) and it may feel a bit like an away game. Hopefully the win against Vermont has steadied Purdue's nerves and they show up to the moment. Either way, it should be a good game. The game tips off at 9:40pm Eastern Saturday night.