Purdue's NCAA tournament starts with a championship goal

Purdue starts the NCAA tournament playing against Grambling States

Photo by: AP Photo/ AJ Mast
Photo by: AP Photo/ AJ Mast

Note - This Story was done in partnership with IUPUI Sports Capitol Journalism.

INDIANAPOLIS – One year ago, the Purdue Boilermakers were in this same spot — a one-seed playing a 16-seed at the start of the NCAA tournament — and the results of that loss to FDU are still a constant reminder. Purdue’s Zach Edey, the likely choice for national player of the year for the second straight season knows it.

But he also knows that this year’s team is not defined by last year’s disappointment.

“I think a lot of people on this team have that game in the back of our mind, and that’s not who we are,” Edey said Thursday. “That’s not what we are defined by. I think a lot of people on the team want to show that’s not the truth.”

While the 2022-2023 and the 2023-2024 Purdue teams might appear similar, a closer examination shows they are far from it.

The Boilermakers (29-4) will begin what they hope will be a long tournament run when they face the Grambling Tigers (21-14) at Gainbridge Fieldhouse Friday evening. The 2022-2023 Boilermakers were plagued by inconsistent outside shooting. They shot 32.6% from three, had a 46% field goal percentage, and scored an average of 73.1 points.

This was all in a year where Edey, their 7-foot-4, 300-pound center, was the best player in college basketball, collecting all six major national player of the year awards. With defenses concentrating defending Edey in the post, there should have been easy opportunities beyond the 3-point line. But with freshmen Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer in the backcourt, the shooting remained inconsistent. The first-round loss made Purdue second team to ever lose to a 16 seed since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

But as Grambling coach Donte’ Jackson said Thursday, when asked about Purdue’s recent tournament history, “Honestly, I feel like that’s old news.”

The Boilermakers have addressed their outside shooting problem by getting Lance Jones, a senior transfer from Southern Illinois who made 35.4% of his 3-point shots. The added experience Smith and Loyer have gained throughout their sophomore seasons has also helped their outside shooting.

Purdue’s 40.8% 3-point shooting ranks second in the nation behind Kentucky. The Boilers also are averaging 10 points per game more than last year, at 83.4 points, 12th in the nation.

They have held their opponents to an average of 70.2 points, forcing 9.8 turnovers and holding opponents to 31% from beyond the 3-point line and 42% overall. They rank 10th in rebounding in the country, at 40.36 per game.

Purdue head coach Matt Painter knows this team is a special team and a handful for any opponent.

“We are one of the best offensive teams in the country,” Painter said. “We’re a great rebounding team, we’re a great 3-point shooting team, we’ve got a horse in Zach Edey down low that people have to do some things differently than they do against regular opponents.”

With the flaws of last year’s team addressed over the past 12 months, the sole purpose for this Purdue team is to win the last game of the season on a Monday night in Arizona.

“Last year we won the Big Ten and the Big Ten Tournament, something that’s very hard to do, and we still know that’s not enough,” Loyer said. “We know winning the regular season this year and putting in all that work to fight back and win another ring, its huge but it’s not what we want to do. We want to win a national championship.”

Players and coach are on the same page with how they accomplish that goal, by not turning the ball over and their emphasis on rebounding. Purdue is 23-0 when the Boilers have 13 turnovers or less and 6-4 when they have 14 or more turnovers in a game.

“Really it comes down to us taking care of the ball and rebounding, two very simple things, two things you get taught in second grade playing basketball,” Loyer said. “Two things that are going to win you a March Madness game.”

The presence of Edey allows the Boilermakers to find the opportunities the defense will present. “If they’re going to give you a pull-up, take the pull-up,” Painter said. “If they’re going to give you a layup, take the lay-up. If they’re going to allow you to throw back and go in, do that.”

Now the only thing left for the Boilermakers is to play. All it takes is one run to wipe the mistakes and the losses and the disappointment from seasons past. The Boilers know that this is their year to make everything right.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Painter said. “We’ve been waiting to get out here and compete and have fun and win some basketball games.”

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