Rival Watch: Sizing Up Kentucky and Purdue in the NCAA Tournament

It’s March Madness time, and for the third time in the last five years we have been reduced to nothing more than dutifully watching and rooting against our rivals.  The only good news about that is for the most part, rooting against Kentucky and Purdue in the NCAA tournament has had pretty good entertainment value over the years.

For as much as their fan base would have you believe that Kentucky is the premier program in America, the reality remains that they have only one national title in the last 20 years.  Since Kentucky’s 1998 national title, four other programs (Duke, UConn, North Carolina, and Florida) have won more than one title.  Nevertheless, they remain a contender in most years under head coach John Calipari, save for a neat little trip to Robert Morris a few years ago.

Purdue is a different animal altogether.  The Boilermakers haven’t made a Final Four since 1980, despite eight regular season Big Ten conference titles since that appearance 38 years ago.  Despite what their fans or their shameful banner at Mackey Arena might say — Purdue has never won a national championship.  We all know that supposed 1932 “title” is as silly as those creepy black gloves that their desperate student section wears to generate more noise.

It’s gotten to the point of being such a dark cloud over the program that you have to believe it is in their heads.  Purdue is typically a good team, even a great team at times, but they never accomplish anything of any real significance in March.  More often than not, it’s worse than that.  There is no nice way to say it — Purdue chokes in March.  A lot.

It has even become part of the national discourse this week, as several commentators have said “yeah but” when referring to Purdue’s chances this year in light of their past performance.  Of course we had to do our part here.

But alas, both teams are in the NCAA tournament, and the Hoosiers are once again in rival watch mode.  Below we take a quick look at each team and predict how things will turn out in the coming days for Kentucky and Purdue.

The Kentucky Wildcats (24-10); South Region #5 Seed

It doesn’t seem like that long ago that there was talk of Kentucky missing the NCAA tournament.  After a mid-February loss to Auburn, Kentucky stood at 17-9 with a 6-7 conference mark.  Since then they have won 7 of 8 to close out the season, including winning the SEC tournament championship.

Unlike some of the Wildcats’ elite teams, this year’s edition lacks veteran leadership.  It was trial by fire for their annual cast of 5-star freshmen, and it took a while for things to click.  For much of the year Kentucky struggled to find a supporting cast for leading scorer Kevin Knox.  Since then guys like PJ Washington (10.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG), Hamidou Diallo (10.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (13.2 PPG, 4.9 APG) have stepped up to help lead the resurgence.

But even with their improved play, this UK team has flaws.  Two staples of their best teams have been elite length that leads to dominant rim protection and rebounding, and perimeter shooting.  Despite recent improvement in both areas, this Kentucky team doesn’t consistently excel at either.

Even if you could believe that they have truly turned a corner to become a top team, there is another problem — their bracket is brutal.  They open with Stephen Curry’s alma mater Davidson which won the Atlantic 10 tournament and like their famous alum, is loaded with shooters.  Assuming UK could get past that game, which is by no means a sure thing, they would then have to get past the likes of Arizona, Virginia and Cincinnati to reach the Final Four.  We’re not buying it.

Prediction:  Loss in the round of 32

The Purdue Boilermakers (28-6); East Region #2 Seed

We don’t need to tell you about Purdue’s season or their roster.  They’ve been in your face all year.  On your TV, at holiday parties, at the water cooler, and on #iubb.  We’re not sure what is going on with that last one, but apparently they want to make sure that we are aware that they have a good team this year.  When you have a dark cloud hanging over you, perhaps sometimes you need to be validated.

There is no way around it, Purdue has a strong team this year.  We’ve believed for months that they are one of about 5-8 teams that have a legitimate shot at winning it all.  They can check all of the boxes with solid point guard play, good perimeter shooting, and a real unique challenge in the post with Isaac Haas.  Oh, and they play good defense.

Photo credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

We thought they could win a title even before we saw their bracket.  Now, we don’t see them being challenged until the elite eight.  They literally could not have gotten an easier draw.  Even at full strength, Texas Tech is not a #3 seed, and they are apparently dealing with injuries.  Things could get interesting in the second round with either in-state nemesis Butler or Arkansas BIG Rock.  But we doubt it.

But easy bracket or not, there is that black cloud.  It isn’t just that they have not won a title or made the Final Four.  It’s the way they go out.  Take a look at all of the year’s that Purdue has lost in the NCAA tournament to a higher seeded opponent since 1985:

2016: Lost as a 5 seed to a 12 seed

2015: Lost as a 8 seed to a 9 seed

2011: Lost as a 3 seed to a 11 seed

2000: Lost as a 6 seed to a 8 seed

1998: Lost as a 2 seed to a 3 seed

1996: Lost as a 1 seed to a 8 seed

1995: Lost as a 3 seed to a 6 seed

1994: Lost as a 1 seed to a 2 seed

1991: Lost as a 7 seed to a 10 seed

1990: Lost as a 2 seed to a 10 seed

1988: Lost as a 1 seed to a 4 seed

1987: Lost as a 3 seed to a 6 seed

1986: Lost as a 6 seed to a 11 seed

1985: Lost as a 6 seed to a 11 seed

Will that happen again this year?  Probably not. Can they beat Villanova?  They certainly can.  They are good enough to beat anyone right now.  But that is one thick, dark cloud.  Last year they got run out of the gym 98-66 when they met #1 seed Kansas.  This year they won’t choke.  But the cloud remains.

Prediction:  Loss in the Elite 8

You can see the NCAA’s official bracket here.

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