The Crimson Tide basketball team will wrap up its Puerto Rico trip tonight in the finals against the Purdue Boilermakers. The game is scheduled to tip off at 6:30 pm CST and will be televised nationally on ESPN2. As always, we'll have a game thread up here at RBR with live commentary for those who wish to participate and to update those who can't watch.
Under head coach Matt Painter, Purdue has become consistently one of the top programs in the Big Ten conference, appearing in five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Last season the Boilermakers finished runner-up in the Big Ten and claimed a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament as one of the top twelve teams in the nation. Although they lost their top two players from a year ago--guard E'Twuan Moore and center JuJuan Johnson--they return the remainder of their primary rotation and also return superstar wing player Robbie Hummel, who missed all of last season due to injury.
The addition of Hummel to the already experienced returning players has Purdue off to a hot 4-0 start this season. They crushed lowly Northern Illinois by an unsightly 96-34 score in the opener, but then squeaked by mediocre High Point 67-65 in the second game. In Puerto Rico they have racked up two impressive wins to make the final. The Boilermakers edged out a very good mid-major Iona team 91-90 in the first round, and then followed up with an 85-77 win over Temple.
Personnel-wise, the big name for Purdue of course is Hummel. Prior to tearing an ACL (for the first time) during the 2009-2010 season, Hummel was one of the best players in all of college basketball. After he suffered the exact same injury a second time, causing him to miss all of the 2010-2011 season, there were questions about his ability to return to his previous elite level. After four games this season, those questions have been mostly put to rest. The 6'8" wing player is averaging nearly 21 points per game to go along with over 5 rebounds and over 2 assists each outing. Hummel can just flat-out play. He's on fire so far this year from the arc, already drilling 14 treys in only four games while shooting over 50% from deep. At 6'8", he's hard to defend out there, especially when he's also capable of putting the ball on the floor, dishing to teammates and getting rebounds. He simply looks like one of the best players in college basketball right now.
The rest of Purdue's lineup is pretty balanced, but two experienced guards have stepped up to lead the charge on the perimeter. Tiny 5'9" senior point guard Lewis Jackson has been very effective, dishing out 4.0 assists/game while scoring 11.8 points/game so far this season. Another senior guard, 6'3" Ryne Smith, has been sizzling as a shooter so far, nailing 17 treys in only four games while shooting a (hopefully) unsustainable 59% from behind the arc. He is second on the team with 14.8 points/game. Anthony Johnson, a 6'3" freshman, Kelsey Barlow, a 6'5" junior, and Terone Johnson, a 6'2" sophomore, have also stepped up and provided good minutes and scoring for what is a loaded and experienced Boilermaker backcourt.
Fortunately, like every team Bama has faced so far this season, Purdue isn't quite as strong in the frontcourt. They rely primarily on a 6'8" freshman, Jacob Lawson, and two 6'9" sophomores, Travis Carroll and Sandi Marcius, for their post minutes. None has scored more than 10 points combined in the four games so far, so they aren't big threats on the offensive end. In fact, these three players primarily rotate at the five spot while Hummel primarily mans the four spot. Like Alabama, they will play most of the game with only one true post player on the court.
Purdue under Matt Painter is one of the elite programs in college basketball right now. They were a top-10 team a year ago, and while they did lose two super-stars, they got to add one back in to go along with tons of returning experience. They should be one of the top teams in the Big Ten once again, they almost certainly will be an NCAA Tournament team, and they will probably spend a lot of time this year in the top 25. Needless to say, this is a big opportunity for Alabama as a team (and even as a program) to make a big statement.
There's also the added incentive of payback. Bama got some payback against Wichita State on Friday night, and now they will get another chance at some double payback: Purdue has beaten Alabama in the regular season both of the last two years. Last year, the Tide was beaten soundly in West Lafayette without JaMychal Green. The year before, Alabama built a massive lead in Tuscaloosa before Purdue stormed back and stole the win. Anthony Grant isn't the dramatic type by any stretch, but there's a decent chance he's mentioned those games to his team.
Winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off title is meaningless, but coming back to Tuscaloosa with three wins against a solid combination of good teams and big-name programs would go a long way to boost Alabama's tournament resume and also to confirm the Tide's status as a team to watch in college basketball this season. Tune in on ESPN2 tonight, and as always, hope for the best.