When Purdue and No. 5 Virginia take the floor Wednesday night, the game offers a chance to look at each program’s 2019-20 squad.
It also offers a chance to look back at a magical NCAA Tournament game from last season.
The Cavaliers narrowly outlasted the Boilermakers 80-75 in overtime in the Elite Eight last season, with a Mamadi Diakite buzzer beater forcing overtime and forever etching a place in Virginia basketball history. It was arguably the most memorable game of Virginia’s thrilling run to the national championship.
“That was the highest-level game I’ve ever been a part of,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said at the team’s “A Night With The National Champions” ceremony in September.
UVa fans can relish in the highlights that will undoubtedly grace the first few minutes of the ESPN2 broadcast.
Bennett and Purdue head coach Matt Painter can share a few words at halfcourt about the memorable contest. Diakite can give a wry smile to a few of the Purdue players whose hearts he broke last season.
Once the ball is tipped, however, it’s all about the 2019 teams. For Virginia (7-0), that’s a good thing.
Losing Carsen Edwards has hurt the Boilermakers. They’re 4-3 to start this season, and they’ve struggled offensively against top teams. In games against Florida State, Marquette, Texas and VCU, Purdue is 1-3 and scoring an average of 60 points per game. Their scoring woes won’t be easily fixed against a Virginia team leading the nation in scoring defense.
While Purdue’s offense hasn’t been impressive, neither has Virginia’s.
Through seven games, the Cavaliers are shooting under 30% from the 3-point line, and their highest scoring output of the season is a 65-point showing in a win over James Madison.
With both teams shooting the ball inconsistently and ranking in the bottom six of adjusted tempo according to KenPom ratings, a low-scoring affair appears likely. Don’t expect a repeat of last year’s NCAA Tournament game.
Despite a 4-3 start to the season for Purdue, the Cavaliers can’t overlook the Boilermakers. They narrowly fell to a ranked Florida State team and beat a VCU team that was ranked when they played.
Virginia is without Braxton Key, who suffered a wrist injury in a game against Arizona State and is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery. Kody Stattmann has also missed time with an illness, and his status for Wednesday is unknown.
The Cavaliers’ roster is a bit depleted, and Purdue dominates opponents at home. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Purdue is tied for sixth nationally with 66 home victories. The Boilermakers are 66-5 at Mackey Arena during those seasons with losses to only Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Texas and Villanova.
It takes a special effort to beat the Boilermakers on their home floor.
“All we can do is get ready for it and battle when we get there,” Diakite said.
This is Virginia’s second true road game of the season after opening at Syracuse nearly a month ago. The Cavaliers won an ugly game — or beautiful depending on your perspective — over the Orange by a final score of 48-34. They may need a similar performance to survive Purdue’s home venue.
Even though it is a marquee game on national TV in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the veterans on the team aren’t making this game out to be anything more than the eighth game on their schedule.
“We’re going prepare the same way we usually do,” Virginia forward Jay Huff said. “We’re certainly not gonna take them lightly. We’re gonna prepare well, but we’re not gonna psych ourselves out. It is, in a lot of ways, just another game, and we prepare the same way we always do.”
The preparation may be the same, but the effort might need to be increased with Key missing a road matchup for the first time this season. Younger players will be forced to assume larger roles, and Bennett wants his team to exert gritty effort for 40 minutes.
Bennett has been outspoken about the team needing to play good defense to win games this season. That won’t change Wednesday, and Bennett wants to see players exert effort like that of sophomore point guard Kihei Clark.
“He’s our heart and soul,” Bennett said. “I kind of used him as the example. We’re going to have to play as hard as he plays on every possession, everyone. That’s the call for us to be successful.”