The best story of the 2022 NCAA Tournament thus far is Saint Peter's, and the Peacocks' journey continues on Friday as the 15-seed takes on No. 3 Purdue in the Sweet 16. Saint Peter's was 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament before this season and, ironically, the last loss came against the Boilermakers back in the first round in 2011 in the 3 vs. 14 game. Now, the Peacocks are just the third No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16. Purdue has a rich Tournament history and has made the Sweet 16 in three of its previous four appearances.
The Peacocks (21-11) have run through the state of Kentucky, first shocking the No. 2-seeded Wildcats in overtime (85-79) and then knocking off No. 7 Murray State (70-60) last Saturday. The common thread in both contests, and for the season, is the lack of pace for the MAAC champions. The Peacocks like to take their time on the court, averaging around 66 possessions per contest, which is below the national average. They actually held their own on the boards against Kentucky, losing that battle by just one (35 vs. 36). Yes, All-American center Oscar Tshiebwe went off for 30 points and 16 rebounds, but the rest of the Wildcats struggled to get going. Then in the next game, Saint Peter's went wire-to-wire in the victory over the Racers, who committed 12 turnovers and 24 fouls, sending the Peacocks to the free-throw line 31 times.
Purdue's (29-7) path to the Sweet 16 consisted of a demolition of No. 14 Yale 78-56 followed by an 81-71 victory over No. 6 Texas. Both games featured rare displays of defense from the Boilermakers. The Bulldogs from the Ivy League scored just 23 points in the second half after putting up 33 in the first 20 minutes. Jaden Ivey led three double-digit scorers in the Round of 64 as Purdue took care of business quickly and was up by as many as 28. The Longhorns gave them a tougher battle last Sunday but put themselves into too big of a hole after enduring a long scoreless stretch in the first half. Trevion Williams was an efficient 10-for-13 off the bench leading the way for Purdue with 22 points and seven rebounds.
East Region: No. 15 Saint Peter's Peacocks (21-11) vs. No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers (29-7)
Time: Friday, March 25 at 7:09 p.m. ET
Where: Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia)
Spread: Purdue -12.5
Keys for Saint Peter's
The Peacocks are probably not going to be able to keep up with Purdue in a higher-scoring contest. People will point to the Kentucky game as a reason for why I'm wrong with this observation, but this season during the non-conference portion, Saint Peter's scored 71 points vs. Providence and 70 vs. St. John's. The Peacocks' offense is not exactly the most efficient in certain areas checking in 313th in 2-point percentage (46.1) and 266th in free throw percentage (69.3). The Peacocks are particularly strong in getting to the line, ranking 19th in FTA/FGA according to KenPom.com. They also are 87th in 3-point percentage, although only 25.9 percent of their total points come from long range.
This team's strength is on the defensive side of the ball. Saint Peter's is 12th defending 2-point shots (44 percent), 16th vs. 3-pointers (29.5 percent), and 48th in turnover percentage (20.7 percent). Most of the Peacocks' regulars are around 6-foot-7 or shorter, so they will struggle to deal with Purdue's Zach Edey and Trevion Williams in the post. Still, they've got some balance offensively with six players averaging at least six points per game. They need Doug Edert to keep shooting well from long range while KC Ndefo has to handle the paint as best he can. Ndefo was in foul trouble vs. Kentucky, and although Saint Peter's still managed to win, Purdue's offense is considerably more potent and efficient than Kentucky's.
Keys for Purdue
If the Boilermakers stay committed on defense, they will be really tough to beat. On the season, Purdue has mediocre numbers defending both 2- and 3-point attempts and is sixth in the nation in FTA/FGA allowed overall. That takes away one of Saint Peter's strengths (getting to the free-throw line) and forces the Peacocks to produce baskets. The Boilermakers' weak spots on defense are that they barely force any turnovers and don't always do a good job disrupting other teams' sets. Because of all their size in the middle, teams are shooting a lot of 3-pointers against Purdue, accounting for 36 percent of the points allowed.
Of course, none of that matters if the Boilermakers themselves score at will. Purdue just scores a ton of points. Zach Edey should be able to get whatever he wants inside, especially after watching Tshiebwe have his way against the smaller Peacocks in the first round. The difference between the Wildcats and Boilermakers is that Purdue's offense ranks in the top 15 nationally in almost every category that matters. There's also Ivey, a first-team All-Big Ten guard, who is capable of taking over games himself. One thing that needs to change is Sasha Stefanovic's 3-point accuracy. In the last five games, he's gone just 5-for-26 from distance. He's a better shooter than this and should a few go in the hoop early that could be a boost of confidence for the Boilermakers and a really bad sign for Saint Peter's.
Saint Peter's has been a great story, but I think it ends here in Philly. The Peacocks' defense is going to keep them in the game for at least the first half, but with extra time to prepare, Purdue head coach Matt Painter will figure out how to crack their code. Eventually, Purdue pulls away from Saint Peter's, who unfortunately will probably lose head coach Shaheen Holloway to another school shortly after seeing their thrilling Cinderella run come to an end.
Prediction: Purdue 70, Saint Peter's 61
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.