Clearly the East Region didn’t get the memo that March is all about madness. The region saw only one first-round upset of a team seeded fourth or higher when No. 13 Marshall upended No. 4 Wichita State, but the Thundering Herd lost in the Round of 32. The East still has the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 seeds still standing, the only region with any semblance of chalk thus far.
In the only region where a top-3 seed is guaranteed to reach the Elite Eight, two of those top seeds will meet when the No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders (26-9, 11-7 Big 12) take on the No. 2 Purdue Boilermakers (30-6, 15-3 Big Ten) in the Sweet 16 Friday in Boston.
Texas Tech is making its 16th NCAA Tournament appearance and its second in three years after an eight-year absence. The Red Raiders have previously reached the Sweet 16 twice but are winless in both trips, most recently a five-point loss to West Virginia in 2005.
Purdue, meanwhile, is in the tournament for the 30th season and is dancing for the fourth time in as many years. This is Purdue’s second consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16, where the Boilermakers are 4-6 in 10 games. They would love to forget their last Sweet 16 game, when they lost to Kansas by 32 points.
This will be only the third meeting between these two teams. Purdue won both contests — in West Lafayette in 1987 and Lubbock in '88 — by 23 and nine points, respectively.
Texas Tech has not had an easy path through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but it's all about "survive and advance." The Red Raiders escaped a first-round scare against No. 14 Stephen F. Austin — who nearly upset Notre Dame two seasons ago — before squeaking past No. 6 Florida by three points to reach the Sweet 16.
While relatively inexperienced in the later stages of the tournament, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard can rely on a blend of youth and veteran leadership as his team navigates the second weekend. They are led by senior Keenan Evans and his 17.8 points per game, including 21.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game over his five outings in March.
Purdue fans have not needed to be as nervous as their Lubbock counterparts, though Sunday’s win over No. 10 Butler provided a good litmus test for the Boilermakers. An easy 74-48 win over 15th-seeded Cal State Fullerton paved the way for a second-round date with the upset-minded Bulldogs.
With the Boilermakers up by only a basket and under 15 seconds remaining, senior guard Dakota Mathias — whose 46.2 percent clip from 3-point range leads the team — made sure that the Bulldogs’ tournament run ended in Detroit. Mathias darted around a screen, took the pass at the top of the arc and, while falling away, hit a game-clinching shot to seal the win for the Boilermakers and punch their ticket to the Sweet 16.
East Region: No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders (26-9) vs. No. 2 Purdue Boilermakers (30-6)
Time: 9:57 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: TD Garden (Boston)
Keys for Texas Tech
Texas Tech is among the conference and national leaders in forcing turnovers at exactly 15 per game. Limiting Purdue’s possessions while creating extra opportunities for offense is the Red Raiders’ recipe for success to try to upset the Boilermakers.
Purdue, however, is not an easy team to turn over. The Boilermakers only average 10.6 turnovers per game, good enough for second in the Big Ten and 15th nationally. Butler forced only 10 Purdue turnovers in their second-round game, so the Red Raiders will have their work cut out for them on Friday.
Keys for Purdue
Purdue has historically been a dominant team in the paint, and that success has not gone away this season thanks to the play of senior big man Isaac Haas. A point of pride for coach Matt Painter, however, is the team’s 42.1 percent shooting from 3-point range, which leads the Big Ten and is second in Division I.
While Haas — and during his absence, freshman Matt Haarms, who had seven points, six rebounds and two blocks against Butler — anchor the inside game, sophomore guard Carsen Edwards leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game and 40 percent from 3-point range. Haas and fellow senior Vincent Edwards each average 14.7 points per game, so the offense is balanced and can strike from many different angles.
If the 3-pointers are falling for Purdue as much as it has during the season, the Boilermakers will be tough to stop. The combination of inside strength with outside efficiency is one that not many teams can defend, so Texas Tech will need arguably its best defensive performance if Purdue is on its game.
Texas Tech can make this game very interesting with its ability to lock down defensively and keep teams in check. The Red Raiders allowed the fewest points per game (64.6) in the Big 12 — which was 15th-best in the country — and are more than capable of bringing that defense to the regional semifinal.
Though Haas missed the Butler game after fracturing his elbow late against Cal State Fullerton and his return timetable is still in question, Haarms is more than capable of manning the paint offensively and anchoring the defense. but against a very good Texas Tech team, both Carsen and Vincent Edwards (no relation) and Haarms will need to repeat their performance from Sunday to keep the Boilermakers dancing for another day.
Prediction: Purdue 75, Texas Tech 70
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of @BoilerBall)