PHILADELPHIA — As Eric Hunter Jr. walked onto the Wells Fargo Center floor on Thursday afternoon, he just tried to take it all in.
“We just had to get our shots up,” said the senior. “We just need to stay in the moment.”
The Boilermakers are no strangers to the Sweet 16 stage, playing their fourth in five years on Friday night, but are doing so against the Cinderella of the 2022 NCAA Tournament – No. 15 St. Peter’s.
The number next to their name and on paper make it seem like a no-brainer win for Purdue, but Matt Painter’s squad is treading lightly.
The Peacocks big win over No. 2 Kentucky in Indianapolis knocked down the door, and their victory over No. 7 Murray State (also at Gainbridge) solidified their chance to make a legitimate run. Everyone in Purdue’s locker room knows how much the world loves a Cinderella story, and they want no parts of that fairy tale.
“I feel like they have a lot of confidence in themselves, and every team you play in the tournament you respect,” said sophomore guard Jaden Ivey. “Going into the game, we’ve just got to be locked in and ready, and I believe we are.”
No 15-seed has ever been in an Elite Eight, and the Boilers will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening. For head coach Matt Painter, that comes down to the match-up of their willpower and drive, something that was missing when his team was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year by North Texas.
“You can look on paper and dissect it all you want, but once you get out there and if our competitive spirit is better than theirs, we’re going to give ourselves a really good chance,” said Painter. “If it’s not, then they’re going to have the advantage there.”
On paper, every metric, number, and statistic favors the Boilers, but they hope to take advantage in the total size mismatch. The tallest player in St. Peter’s starting five is 6’8″ and their starting center is an inch shorter.
Purdue has two big men who can provide a problem for any team. Sophomore Zach Edey is taller than any other player in the 2022 NCAA Tournament at 7’4″ and averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, while senior forward Trevion Williams, named Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year this season, led the team with 22 points to get past a tough Texas team in the Round of 32.
Even though his starting center may be nine inches taller than theirs, KC Ndefo, Painter knows what the Peacocks lack in size, they make up for in speed.
“I think we can beat anybody in the country. And if we turn the ball over, I think we can get beat by a lot of people. I think we’ve shown both of those areas, and their ability to turn people over is really good,” said Painter. “We’ve got to be able to handle their pressure. They might be 6’7″ but Ndefo is going to block your shot. They’re fast, they’re quick, they keep people in front of you, and they play passing lanes.”
Edey and Williams know their role, especially if Ivey is targeted at the rim. For them, sticking to the fundamentals in the paint is Boiler basketball.
“On offense we really try to stress getting the ball inside, even in practice. It’s not just in the game,” said Edey. “Every day they’re stressing for us to post touches, for us to get comfortable with the ball down low, for us to make the right reads of a double-team, stuff like that.”
Williams was one of the three seniors on the team who were seconds away from the Final Four in overtime as freshmen, but he feels as though the team’s positivity throughout the week can overcome any team’s chip on their shoulder.
“I would say usually when we go back home, we watch a lot of film, we get off our feet, we get a lot of shots up, and we’ve been kind of just keeping that same routine,” said Williams.
“Coach tells us all the time we still haven’t reached our ceiling. Some teams in this tournament have reached their ceiling, and we still have a lot of room to improve, and it shows. If we take care of the basketball, there’s a lot more to us.”
Tip-off from Philadelphia is set for 7:09pm on CBS4.