WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue didn't come home with a trophy from the Emerald Coast Classic, but tonight it has a chance to grab something that would be even more satisfying for its fans: revenge. Of course, the Boilermakers aren't thinking about tonight's matchup against fifth-ranked Virginia, the team that eliminated them from the NCAA Tournament last season, in those terms. The Cavaliers are just another non-conference opportunity to boost their tournament résumé for this season, a chance to prove that even without Carsen Edwards they are still a team to reckoned with in the Big Ten.
This is not the same Virginia team that survived a 42-point outburst from Carsen Edwards and beat Purdue 80-75 in the Elite Eight en route to the program's first national championship eight months ago. The three best players from that team – De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Indianapolis native Kyle Guy – have all moved on to the professional ranks, either the NBA or the G League. For that reason, Virginia started the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll, a particularly low slot for a defending national champion. Since the start of the season, however, Virginia has given every indication that it will once again be a player in the national title race. The Cavaliers have started 7-0 and have done it as they usually have under coach Tony Bennett: with suffocating defense. Virginia ranks No. 1 in the country in points given up per game (40.3) and opponent's field goal percentage (28.8%). It doesn't force many turnovers, but rather stays back in the lane and is impeccable in help, making nearly every shot a difficult one for the offense. Purdue struggled with turnovers in the Emerald Coast Classic, giving the ball away 42 times in two games in Florida (24 in the championship game against Florida State), but the bigger issue tonight will be making good passes and cuts to get some semi-open looks. Matt Painter has not been satisfied with his team's offensive performance this season and thinks the fundamentals have been lacking. Those small details will have to be airtight tonight or Virginia – which is coming off a 46-26 (yes, 26) win over Maine – will pick the Boilers apart.
Purdue has hung its hat on defense this season, as well, and will probably have to do so again tonight. Nojel Eastern even mentioned that the Boilermakers might try to beat Virginia at its own game, in which case we could be in for a game that ends with both teams in the 40s. Purdue comes in giving up only 58 points per contest, 16th-best in the country, while Eastern and Matt Haarms rank as two of the best defenders at their positions. The Cavaliers will test Purdue's defense by making the Boilers guard for the full shot clock on nearly every possession, forcing the Boilermakers to remain locked in and focused for longer stretches than any team is used to. Virginia plays at one of the slowest paces in the country, working the ball around and hoping for defensive lapses to get easy baskets. Purdue will have to play its best game of the season on defense as well as offense in order to pull out a win in this one.
Matt Painter has been adamant so far this season that he believes the bumps in the road his team has faced are caused by unforced errors or, as he put it, "Purdue beating Purdue." The Boilermakers have three losses that all could have been wins if not for simple mistakes like turnovers (Florida State, Texas) and missed free throws (Marquette). There hasn't been any indication yet that Purdue isn't capable of hanging with an elite team like Virginia, but there really hasn't been any sign yet that this new, younger Purdue team can beat a team like the Cavaliers, either. Tonight, the Boilermakers have a chance to make that statement, in front of what should be one of the best crowds of the season.