(1) Virginia vs. (3) Purdue
Initial Thoughts: Holy hell, folks. With apologies to Duke/UCF, I’m going to declare that Purdue/Tennessee barnburner the game of the tournament thus far. What seemed destined to be a one-sided blowout at 53-36 suddenly became an instant classic as Tennessee rattled off a 14-0 run to tie it at 65 and eventually even took the lead. The final few minutes were a jaw-dropping exchange of haymakers, the kind of finish that makes watching hundreds of basketball games all year totally worth it. Apologies to Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Lamonte Turner, and the rests of the Vols; it was a damn shame that someone had to lose that game.
So here the Boilers are, fresh off that emotional overtime triumph, taking on Virginia, whose defense will suck the life out of a team (just ask Oregon). In a grinder that barely had half as many points as Purdue/Tennessee, Virginia eked out a 53-49 win despite nonexistent bench production and dismal shooting nights from DeAndre Hunter and Kyle Guy. Credit to the Ducks’ puzzling zone and tremendous length, but Virginia will need to be sharper offensively on Saturday to keep the 2019 season alive.
One teeny, tiny detail that I’m sure neither fan base has been thinking about constantly for 35-40 years: Purdue hasn’t made a Final Four since 1980, while Virginia hasn’t made one since 1984. Matt Painter and Tony Bennett each have a huge chance to add to their already glistening resumes, but it won’t come easy…
Virginia on Offense: The big question for me on this end is how Virginia’s offensive play distribution will break down. Tony Bennett has long been a proponent of the mover-blocker motion offense, but with highly talented guards that can make plays off the bounce, he’s run far more continuity ball screen action this year. Synergy numbers tell the tale:
Virginia is running around 70% more pick-and-roll this year than their average over the last four seasons while scoring at a scorching clip, which is a testament to 1) Bennett’s willingness to adapt his offense to his personnel, and 2) Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark’s ability to run that action with ruthless efficiency. The Oregon matchup zone largely took the Cavaliers out of both actions, though, forcing Virginia into taking 33 threes. That’s not necessarily bad for Virginia, but Hunter and Guy combined to go 3/17 from distance, and Oregon was able to hang around. Bennett will likely welcome the sight of a Purdue defense that plays 99.9% man-to-man, even if it is an extremely stout unit.
Purdue’s pick-and-roll defense is solid if not spectacular, as Matt Haarms has some mobility and the Grady Eifert/Aaron Wheeler rotation at the four spot can switch most screens. Purdue’s rotations are excellent (not at all surprising for a Matt Painter-coached team), meaning easy Virginia buckets will be difficult to come by even when running crisp sets. The Boilers do a superb job of walling off the paint, and although it’s not a zone, Virginia will likely take 20+ threes in this one; better shooting from Guy and Hunter is absolutely critical.
Expect to see far more Jack Salt, Braxton Key, and Jay Huff in this one, as Bennett made a point to keep as much shooting and defensive versatility on the court as possible against the Ducks. That trio managed only 11 combined minutes on Thursday night, but Salt in particular is one of the best screeners in all of college basketball, and his value is far greater against man-to-man.
Purdue on Offense: My colleague Matt did an excellent job breaking down how Purdue’s massive arsenal of off-ball screens and cuts would be a nightmare for Tennessee to cover, given the Vols’ tendency to lose shooters and general inability to defend motion. Still, though, it took a sublime night of shot-making from Carsen Edwards and especially Ryan “Shimmy Step-back” Cline to overcome the Vols’ athleticism and ability to switch.
Virginia’s primary lineup brings a similar switchability across four and even positions, but with far greater discipline within Tony Bennett’s renowned Pack Line system. The Cavaliers see plenty of motion with their own mover-blocker offense, and Guy, Jerome, Clark, and Hunter comprise a terrific perimeter group to match up with Purdue’ scorers. The biggest concern, then, is the miniscule turnaround time Virginia will have to study the Boilers’ intricate sets. We’ve long seen how difficult it is to prepare for Syracuse’s zone with only a day to prep, and in a similar sense, Painter’s thick offensive playbook is far more difficult for unfamiliar nonconference foes to defend than, say, Michigan St. or Michigan, who have seen it for years. Plus, when all else fails, you have Edwards and Cline knocking insane down shots like this:
(Yes, I just wanted to post that clip because my jaw is still on the ground.)
Part of what makes that Purdue offense so difficult to guard is Edwards’s (and Cline’s) willingness to be a screener. Anyone guarding Edwards has likely been instructed to latch onto his hip and chase him everywhere; my old high school coach referred to this as “no help, total denial.” That means when Edwards sneakily sets a screen, his defender isn’t going to loosen at all, which can lead to openings for the screen’s recipient. He barely even sets a pick here, but Admiral Schofield is already prepping for Edwards to come off a down screen, and Matt Haarms waltzes to the rim for a dunk:
As I said, Virginia’s scheme is ultra sound and the Cavs communicate as well as anyone in the country on the defensive end, but the Boilers’ extensive motion will give them an entirely different test than, say, Roy Williams’s secondary break offense or Duke’s powerful wing athletes. As I mentioned, I expect we’ll see a ton more of Huff, Salt, and Key, and I especially don’t think this is a Kihei Clark game. Hunter will likely need to guard Purdue’s oversized point guard Nojel Eastern, and Edwards and Cline can both shoot over Clark too easily. That means Key or Diakite at the four and Salt or Huff checking Haarms/Trevion Williams at the five.
Key Factor(s): In a macro sense, these two teams are highly reflective of one another: both are extremely disciplined on both ends, stressing patience and execution in offense (but also having multiple elite-level shot-makers for when things break down). Defensively, they both protect the paint at all costs, preferring to make you hit challenged perimeter shots over finding easy driving lanes or post up opportunities. Which team can assert its will on the flow of the game and earn some control over the interior?
Additionally, when this inevitably comes down to a one- or two-possession game late in the second half, which team can ignore the demons of tournaments past and continue to execute its offense? Both fan bases will be holding their collective breath throughout the contest, and although I’m sure both love the current year’s team, it’s hard not to be haunted from some of the more crushing losses in recent history.
Final Predictions: Like almost every Virginia game, this is going to be a grind-it-out battle on both ends, with Virginia possessions especially likely to use 25 second of the shot clock every time down the floor. Every possession will be ultra-valuable on both ends, and with two superb backcourts, expect to see some late shot clock heroics on both sides. I’d be shocked if Purdue scores even 2/3 of what they managed on on Thursday night, but I also doubt Virginia is ever able to really pull away. Hunter and Guy should both bounce back against a less athletic defensive team, and Jerome is always up for a huge moment. I’ll take the Cavs to win, but Edwards and Cline will go down swinging in another instant classic.