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Mar 21, 2024 11:29 am

Purdue begins prove-it mission, plucky Grambling State unbowed

Edey

INDIANAPOLIS — Purdue knows the proving ground as a No. 1 seed is lined with potholes but empty of mulligans.

A 60-mile drive from Lafayette to the state capital ushers the Boilermakers (29-4) into the first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with 16 seed Grambling State on Friday.

Purdue was searching for a do-over at this time last year. They became the second team in tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to Farleigh Dickinson to spark a redemption tour led by All-American center Zach Edey.

“We put ourselves right back in the same position we were in last year,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of repeating as Big Ten regular-season champions and earning the top seed in the Midwest Region. “Proud of our players. You don’t start at the No. 1 seed next year.”

Edey enters the tournament with a 10-game streak of scoring at least 22 points.

The 7-4, 300-pound Edey said his sole focus this season has been on being at his best for this targeted run to Phoenix and the Final Four, which would be the Boilermakers first since 1980. Edey led college basketball with an average of 24.4 points per game and was third in the nation with 11.7 rebounds per game.

Grambling State (21-14) initially fell behind by 14 points to Montana State in the First Four on Wednesday, before a comeback resulted in the first NCAA Tournament victory in program history.

“Hey listen, we got to get to the room, pack up, figure it out, start on film and just worry about how we can throw the whole house, the kitchen — whatever — the backyard at Zach Edey,” SWAC coach of the year Donte’ Jackson said after the 88-81 win in overtime.

Jackson said Grambling brings an air of confidence from being in the ring with several college basketball heavyweights this season. They rebounded from a nine-game losing streak dotted with teams in the Field of 64: Colorado, Iowa State, Dayton, Washington State, Drake and Florida.

The Tigers were 2-10 when conference play began. Jackson said he knew his team would come out punching. They went 14-4 in conference games and claimed back-to-back SWAC regular-season titles, then got an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

“The atmosphere (Wednesday), it wasn’t too much different for us,” said forward Jourdan Smith, who powered home a putback dunk to bring UD Arena to life in the win. “(Jackson) made the schedule he made this year for a reason. When we came in here, we knew what we were coming into. The atmosphere wasn’t too much different.”

Painter said Purdue’s overtime loss in the Big Ten tournament semifinals to Wisconsin won’t carry over to the NCAA Tournament, but it sparked renewed conversation about the Boilermakers’ vulnerability to teams that play at a frenetic pace.

In the past three NCAA Tournament brackets, Purdue went out in painful fashion: to 16 seed FDU last year, to 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the Sweet 16 in 2022 and to 13 seed North Texas in overtime in 2021.

Painter’s record of 87-18 over the past three seasons is among the best in college basketball. Only Houston’s Kelvin Sampson has won at least 29 games each of the past three years.

This might be the best on-paper resume Purdue has had entering the tournament with wins over the teams ranked 4th (Arizona), 7th (Tennessee), 9th (Alabama), 13th twice (Illinois), 14th (Marquette), 17th (Gonzaga), 21st twice (Wisconsin) and 24th twice (Michigan State) in the NCAA NET rankings. The Boilermakers are 11-1 against the NCAA NET top 25.

But Painter is 17-15 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. He has never advanced beyond the Elite Eight with Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022.

Players know the subject of painful upsets isn’t going away until the Boilermakers change the narrative.

“(History) gives you a bigger chip on your shoulder,” said Purdue sophomore Fletcher Loyer. “There’s more you want to prove. That bad taste in our mouth has stuck with us all year.

“We’re ready to go for March, and ready to prove what everybody said was wrong.”

–Field Level Media

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