COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was obvious just a handful of possessions into the game: No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson believes it can beat top-seeded Purdue. Several minutes later, it became also became clear the Boilermakers are a little bit unsure of themselves.
It hasn't been the FDU press that has been the problem in the teams' NCAA Tournament round of 64 matchup. Purdue has turned the ball over in the backcourt just once against the Knights' pressure tonight and has shown a few new wrinkles in its press-break offense. The issue has been everything else. The Boilermakers are once again struggling to shoot from the outside, going 2 for 11 from 3-point range in the first half, and turned the ball over in the frontcourt several times, failing to take full advantage of the Knights' less-than-intimidating halfcourt defense. At the break, the Northeast Conference Tournament runners-up lead the No. 3 team in the final AP Poll 32-31 and look as though they are enjoying throwing a scare into one of the nation's best teams.
The Knights made its intentions known very early: They will not be letting Zach Edey beat them. Fairleigh Dickinson, with no player on its roster taller than 6-foot-7, nine inches shorter than Edey, sent two and sometimes three defenders at the Sporting News national player of the year, making it difficult for Purdue to get the ball into him. When Edey did catch it, he didn't quite make the most of his opportunities, missing three consecutive jump hooks over smaller defenders to open the game and not getting into the scoring column until nearly nine minutes had gone by, when he drop-stepped and dunked. At halftime, Edey has 12 points and six rebounds, so he hasn't exactly been quiet, but FDU has succeeded for the most part at making life difficult for him.
FDU's defensive strategy theoretically should have opened some space for Purdue to get some jumpers off, but the Boilermakers weren't really able to take advantage of that, either. Purdue, which has struggled all season from long range, did so again, despite a slew of good looks. Braden Smith made a 3 in the early going and Homestead graduate Fletcher Loyer knocked one in from the top of the key. The latter was part of a 11-0 run which saw the Boilermakers reclaim the lead after falling behind by as many as six at 19-13. During that spurt, the Knights missed five straight shots and did not score for 5:13.
Purdue's saving grace in the first half has been Smith, who went 0 for 8 from the field in the Big Ten Tournament championship game against Penn State, but scored the first five Boilermaker points and has done a generally good job of advancing the ball against the press. He has seven points on 2-for-4 shooting and three assists, though he did get a little bit too aggressive with a few of his passes and committed five turnovers. He dropped a terrific transition pass to Mason Gillis for a layup and a 20-19 Purdue lead.
For a significant chunk of the first half, Fairleigh Dickinson had Purdue on its heels and the Boilermakers seemed to be a little bit nervous, struggling to hold on the ball. The big Boiler run in the middle of the half, which coincided with Edey getting more involved, seemed to settle the top seed a little, but FDU is not going away. Twenty minutes of play have done nothing to dissuade the Knights from their optimism in the early minutes. They are in this game and if they can get hot from the field as they were in the first 10 minutes, the Boilermakers will be in deep trouble.