Sports Journalism Blog

By Justin Haberstroh | @JustinHaberstr1

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue coach Matt Painter knows how impressive it is to take a team to the NCAA tournament after coaching it for one season. The second-round matchup for the top-seeded Boilermakers, eighth-seeded Utah State, is not one Purdue is taking lightly.

Utah State’s head coach Danny Sprinkle rebuilt the team from scratch. Sprinkle brought two players over from his previous job at Montana State but besides that, nobody on Utah State had played together.

“They’re a really, really good basketball team,” Painter said. “They are really, really well coached. This is going to be a dogfight, all right. It’s going to be a dog fight.”

The Boilermakers will have the biggest dog in the fight in Zach Edey, their 7-foot-4 senior center and the expected two-time National Player of the Year, and some other dogs with a bit of bite in sophomore guard Braden Smith, sophomore forward Trey Kaufman-Renn, sophomore guard Fletcher Loyer, and graduate guard Lance Jones.

That Purdue starting five started the 2024 NCAA tournament run off strong in its 78-50 victory over Grambling State on Friday night. The Boilers made sure that their first tournament game was a statement, that this Purdue team does not lose to 16 seeded teams, it takes care of business and is solely focused on winning.

The winning for this Purdue team starts before they even come to campus, when Purdue manages the recruiting process.

While much of the college basketball industry was focused on the economic benefits college athletes can now enjoy, Painter said the addition of Jones, who played at Southern Illinois last season, was about something else.

“Lance Jones was about winning,” Painter said. “He didn’t say one thing about name, image, and likeness, even though he obviously gets money through name, image, and likeness. He didn’t say one thing in recruiting about that.”

On Sunday, Painter and his team will face a program with circumstances that represent the antithesis of Purdue culture.

But the transfer portal recruiting makeover for Utah State has worked, with a 28-6 record, tied for the third-best record in team history with the 2019, 2001 and 2000 teams. Utah State has also been ranked for nine straight weeks, the second most by any team in school history, behind the 1959-1960 team that was ranked for 11 straight weeks. The Boilermakers know that Utah State is a team to be reckoned with, no matter how they are built.

“Just the balance of being able to defend, being able to offensively play through their posts, but also play through their point guard, get out in transition, execute their sets, they’re just a well-oiled machine,” Painter said. “They have a really, really good team. They have had a great year, and this is going to be a tough challenge for us.”

The variety of approaches Purdue has faced this season should prepare the Boilermakers for whatever they will face.

“We’ve dealt with a bunch of different styles all year,” Edey said. “We’ve dealt with shooting five, we’ve dealt with the post-up five, we’ve dealt with rebound five, opposite dunker side, every single style we’ve played against so we’re ready for everything.”

Utah State has a record of 20-109 against AP ranked opponents, a winning percentage of 15%, including a record of 2-23 against teams ranked in the top five. The last time Utah State played a team ranked third or higher was in 1991 against UNLV, losing 126-83.Utah State likes to play fast and cause turnovers, something that has been an area of concern for Purdue. The Aggies average 6.9 steals per game and 10.88 points per game in transition. Utah State is a long team that guards well and plays its best when turnovers create chaos.

“They kind of play that five out styles, they try to spread you with their five-man that can shoot and also put the ball on the floor and make some plays like that,” Edey said.

This game will be a test to see if Purdue will be able to handle Utah State’s pressure and up-tempo style. Even with Purdue being forced to try to control and slow down this game, Utah State will have to deal with the largest man in college basketball. Utah State 7-foot sophomore center Isaac Johnson knows that guarding the Player of the Year will be next to an impossible task.

When asked about the prospect of trying to stop Edey, Johnson said, “Sometimes you can’t. I think what we can do is stop the rest of the team from doing some of the things they do. I guess you can stop’em down low. Not so much when it’s up high, so we’ll do our best.”