LOUISVILLE — The last time the world saw Tennessee, it blew a 25-point lead before beating Iowa in overtime in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament second round.
Combined with Purdue’s 87-62 win over Villanova the night before, it may seem like the Boilermakers (25-9) have all the momentum heading into Thursday’s South Regional semifinal against the Volunteers. It may not be that simple, though. After all, second-seeded Tennessee (31-5) spent much of the 2018-19 season as the nation’s top-ranked team, and it features a big, talented roster.
“At a decent stretch of the year, they were the No. 1 team in the country,” Purdue senior Ryan Cline said. “That’s the team I’m expecting to come out on Thursday.”
The Volunteers were on top of the Southeastern Conference most of the season before late losses to Kentucky, LSU and Auburn — three teams that will also play in the Sweet 16 — handed the title to LSU. The Volunteers then defeated Kentucky 82-78 in the SEC Tournament semifinals and appeared to be headed for a top seed before a stunning 84-64 defeat at the hands of Auburn in the SEC championship game.
“The resume that Tennessee has speaks for itself,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter, who has led the Boilermakers to the Sweet 16 in each of the past three seasons.
The Tennessee starting lineup boasts three seniors and two juniors. Four of the five starters and reserve Jordan Bowden average scoring in double figures. Purdue junior Carsen Edwards predicts the Volunteers will give a veteran performance Thursday.
“I expect a really talented, really athletic team with a lot of depth that plays very, very physical,” he said.
Painter said the Boilermakers are preparing for the team that won 31 games, which is tied for a program record, and outscored Iowa 12-6 in overtime, not the one that nearly had an all-time collapse just three days ago.
“You don’t watch a team struggle and think that’s who we’re going to see,” he said. “Tennessee showed their mental toughness once that game got tied at 67.”
Both teams come into Thursday’s showdown with an All-American on its side. While the Volunteers will be most concerned about Edwards, who scored 42 points in last Saturday’s 25-point victory over Villanova at Hartford, Conn., Purdue’s main focus will be on SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, who averages 18.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals.
Williams scored 22 points and had eight rebounds in the Volunteers’ 78-75 win over Purdue in an in-season tournament last November in the Bahamas.
“Grant has … a power forward body but a small forward game,” Painter said. “He can move, he can shoot, he can rebound, he can play in the mid-post, he can score around the basket, he can drive the ball.”
Edwards had his best game in more than a month in the second round against Villanova. The Purdue junior went 12-of-21 from the floor, made nine of his 16 3-point attempts and all nine of his free throws in the win. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes knows his team will have to be more effective defensively against Edwards for the Volunteers to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010.
“He’s so tough to guard because he’s got the green light,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “He can shoot it deep. He is a very, very explosive guy. You know he’s going to get his shots, and so you’ve got to be on edge.”
The game’s starting big men — Purdue sophomore Matt Haarms and Tennessee senior Kyle Alexander — are similar in a lot of ways. Both excel on the defensive end and each gives his team enough offense to keep its opponent honest. Haarms had 18 points and nine rebounds against Villanova and led the Big Ten in blocked shots.
“[Haarms] has improved so much from a year ago,” Barnes said. “He moves well, a guy that's confident around the basket and can shoot. He’s a guy who can really affect the game on both ends.”
Painter pointed out about 20 minutes into Wednesday’s press conference at the Yum! Center that, with all the focus on the center matchup, Williams and forward Admiral Schofield, Tennessee’s guards — Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner — hadn’t even been mentioned yet. Turner had 17 points off the bench in Tennessee’s win over the Boilermakers last season, and Bone was second in the SEC in assists and led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. That’s how deep and talented the Volunteer roster is.
“They can hurt you in a lot of different ways,” Purdue senior forward Grady Eifert said. “They have a lot of good players. It’s going to take a whole team effort.”
Like Tennessee, Purdue is more than just Edwards and Haarms. Cline made four 3-pointers and finished with 12 points against Villanova, Eifert has had one of the most efficient offensive seasons in the history of college basketball, and sophomore guard Nojel Eastern has turned into one of the country’s top perimeter defenders.
“It’s a team game,” Barnes said. “You have to be impressed with this Purdue team that they play really, really hard, have great defense and bring speed to their game offensively. They understand their roles and they play really, really well together.”
Both teams enter Thursday’s contest with long Final Four droughts. Purdue hasn’t been since 1980. Tennessee has only one Elite Eight appearance and has never been to a Final Four. Barnes did lead Texas to a Final Four in 2003.
“I don’t think you make that a bigger deal than it is,” Barnes said. “I think you keep them focused on what you do as a team and what you’ve done since November. You want them to enjoy it, but it’s always more fun when you win.”