Virginia Basketball is 7-0 this year, though the opposition hasn’t exactly been the cream of the crop. Their strength of schedule so far is just 214th in the nation. Some of that isn’t their fault, opening the season against a struggling Syracuse team, but the out of conference schedule for the Hoos this year has been unimpressive.
Not this game though. This is one out-of-conference game Virginia has this year against a real opponent. It’s the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and this matchup came as a surprise to exactly nobody, after the two teams played an epic Elite Eight game back in March. Virginia fans will get to enjoy the replays of the Kihei Clark - Mamadi Diakite game-tying play from the end of regulation in that game. Purdue fans may not enjoy that quite so much.
This year’s game will bear little resemblance to the last one. Over 70% of the points scored in that game are gone. That includes Carsen Edwards’ 42 points and the combined 59 that Virginia got from their trio of NBAers. Mamadi Diakite is the leading returning scorer from that game, with 14 points.
One thing that will be the same as last year is that Virginia isn’t going to get anything from Braxton Key. He played just two minutes in that Elite Eight game and did not score. He’ll be sitting this one out with a wrist injury.
The Boilermakers are ranked 13th in KenPom, but are just 4-3. They lost to both Texas (at home) and Marquette (road) early in the season and then lost to Florida State in OT on Saturday. On paper, none of those teams are as good as Virginia. Then again, on paper, none of those teams are as good as Purdue either.
With Edwards gone, the Boilermakers are led in scoring by a graduate transfer from High Point, Jahaad Proctor. He’s a big combo guard (6’3, 205) who excels at getting to the rim and using his body to finish or draw fouls. He can shoot it a little bit (34% career), especially if you leave him as open as FSU did here.
He’ll see a lot of Casey Morsell on him in this one, especially if Kody Stattmann continues to be out (he is expected to return). Outside of the Arizona State game, Morsell has really struggled on the offensive end. He’s 3-for-30 from downtown, which wouldn’t be bad if he was getting to the rim and/or drawing fouls. He’s hasn’t done many of those things, either, outside of the Arizona State game.
Purdue’s returning starters are 7’3 big man Matt Haarms and 6’7 forward Nojel Eastern. Haarms is the guy reaching up to block Mamadi’s game tying shot. What? You want to see the highlight again? OK.
Haarms is very good inside, and has improved his rebounding since last year. He’s also capable of stepping out and knocking down a jumper.
Eastern is a good defender, but not much of a scorer. He can pass, and at times acts like a point forward. We’ll also see Sasha Stefanovic, because he can flat out shoot the rock. He’s over 40% for his career, and could help stretch out the Pack Line. He saw two uneventful minutes in the Elite Eight game.
Replacing Edwards is sophomore PG Eric Hunter. He played well in 12 minutes against Virginia last year, though on the season he really struggled to shoot the ball. He’s still not really shooting it well, but he’s leading the team in assists and in minutes played. They are also starting to play more of freshman Isaiah Thompson. He played 33 minutes against FSU after only two minutes against Texas early in the year.
The Boilermakers can afford to play Hunter and Thompson together because the front court is big. Obviously, Haarms is part of that. But the rest of the front court is 6’9 Aaron Wheeler, and 6’9, 270 lb. Trevion Williams. Williams is very talented, but has trouble staying on the court due to foul issues. He averages nearly eight fouls per 40 minutes. Despite playing just 14 minutes per game, he’s fourth in scoring and third in rebounds.
Last year’s Purdue team was an offensive juggernaut, led by one of the best scorers in the nation. This year, they’ve slowed it down. They’re still a strong offensive team, but more balanced and better inside. They haven’t shot the ball well, which is killing their offense (sound familiar?), but they’re still ranked 31st in offensive efficiency according to KenPom. They’re a lot better defensively (7th).
Make no mistake, despite a couple of bad losses, this is undoubtedly the best team Virginia has played to date. On the road and without Braxton Key (and possibly Kody Stattmann), Virginia may well lose this game. KenPom actually predicts a 50-48 loss. Virginia has been a bit fortunate not to lose against either Vermont or Arizona State, and this is a much tougher matchup.