NCAA Tournament Round 1: Purdue vs. Vermont
Purdue kicks off the NCAA Tournament Thursday evening at 7:27pm Eastern against the Vermont Catamounts (aka, fancy cats.)
The Catamounts are coached by John Becker, in his sixth season at the helm. They enter the tournament the hottest team in the field, having won their last 21 games. They won the America East Conference by a full four games, and ran right through their conference tournament with relative ease. They've been playing very well, and feel very confident.
Interestingly enough, Vermont has quite a few Indiana connections. This includes Josh Spiedel from Columbus (best wishes for his continued recovery), Dre Wills from Indy, and the Duncan brothers, Everett and Ernie, from Evansville.
The Catamounts don't have a lot of NCAA Tournament experience, but their program is an experienced Cinderella, having beaten #4 seed Syracuse in 2005 (let's hope that doesn't set a precedent.) They are 2-5 all time in the NCAAs, having last made the tournament in 2012 where they beat Lamar in the play-in game before losing to North Carolina.
It's hard to judge this team given the level of their competition. They have played three opponents that can give us an idea of how they might match up. They only lost to Houston by one point (72-71), but were defeated handily by both Butler (81-69) and South Carolina (68-50). Their best win was probably against Yale, who they beat in late November 67-65. The other side of that coin is their worst loss against Northeastern, 59-57.
Don't be fooled though, they are capable of beating Purdue. While only 172nd in scoring offense, they are 11th in scoring defense. Their offensive rating is 34th in the nation, and their defensive rating is 20th.
They aren't particularly good at the one thing that small schools typically leverage to pull upsets: 3-point shooting. Only Ernie Duncan and Anthony Lamb shoot over 40% from distance, so Purdue should have an advantage there. Unless they got uncharacteristically hot from distance, they may not be able to take advantage of Purdue's weakness in perimeter defense.
Anthony Lamb is a player to keep an eye out for. He shoots over 50% from the field and averages 12.6 points per game. He looks suspiciously like the type of small-schooler baller who goes off in the tournament. Payton Henson scores 11.4 per game, and Trae Bell-Haynes 11.1. No other Catamount scores over 8 points per game. Lamb and Hensen average 5.4 and 5.3 rebounds per game, respectively, and Bell-Haynes averages 3.8 assists per game.
Vermont is not very deep, as they only have five players who average 20 or more minutes per game (Purdue has seven.) But their top five have been very good. Particularly noteworthy is Anthony Lamb (6'6'', 227lb), who is just a freshman, but leads Vermont in both points and rebounds per game. Lamb's best game came against New Hampshire, where he went for 26 and 13. Lamb has gone over 20 points seven times this season, and has had double digit rebounds three times.
Payton Henson is a Tulane transfer who has been quite effective on the block for Vermont. He's nearly doubled his scoring average from his Tulane days and is also an effective rebounder. He's not a particularly good 3-point shooter (31%), but he's not shy about shooting from distance, so Purdue will probably be ok with letting him fire away while they pack the paint.
Kurt Steidl is a tall (6'6'') guard who has seen his scoring dip this year. He's not afraid to fire from behind the 3-point line, and shoots just a hair under 40% from distance. Ernie Duncan is probably their biggest threat from distance; he average nearly 5.5 of his seven shots per game are 3-point attempts, and he's making them at a 40% clip. His fellow Pocket City ballers are undoubtedly proud.
These two teams have a recent history. They played last on November 15th, 2015, when Purdue blew them out 107-79, behind big games from Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas. Both teams have changed a lot sense then; Purdue in the development of Caleb Swanigan, and Vermont with the addition of Henson and Lamb.
So what are the keys to a Purdue win? Play a Purdue game. Play through Swanigan and the low post, where Vermont doesn't have the meat and muscle to compete against Biggie and Haas. Vermont is hot and confident, so Purdue will have to step on their throats early. It's so crucial in these NCAA Tournament games to jump out to an early lead as the higher seed. Cinderellas that around able to weather the storm and stick around have a tendency to win.
Purdue hasn't looked great lately. Not just the two losses to Michigan, but they haven't looked like the same team that blew out teams like Wisconsin and Michigan State. Maybe this is a lull that they're experiencing, and if so, they need to break out of it. Things get pretty real pretty fast in the NCAA Tournament. I'll be happy with a win, and some signs that the team is getting back on track. I think we'll see both Thursday night.