How they got here: Few teams have succeeded despite adversity quite as well as the 2011 Boilermakers. In October, Purdue lost star senior Robbie Hummel to his second torn ACL in eight months. Purdue coach Matt Painter was forced to recalibrate a team that had suddenly gone from a top-five national title contender to a team with two stars -- E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson -- and a lot of unheralded complementary pieces. Painter has succeeded in spades, and though Purdue fans may always wonder what could have been, it’s remarkable that this team still has a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four all the same. They’ll begin that quest against St. Peter’s, who finished fourth in the MAAC but toppled Loyola-Maryland, Fairfield and Iona on the way to a conference tournament title and an automatic NCAA berth.
Players to watch: Johnson and Moore are well-known to any casual college hoops fan, and it’s no secret Purdue’s stars have to excel on both ends of the floor for Purdue to succeed. But the Boilermakers also built success on the backs of role players this season. Lewis Jackson runs the show at the point, Ryne Smith -- who suffered a mild concussion this week but will play Friday -- is a deadly long-range shooter, and D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson provide versatility and defense at the forward and guard spots.
One player missing from that list? Guard Kelsey Barlow, whom Painter suspended this week for disciplinary reasons. (Smith’s concussion and Barlow’s dismissal were not connected, as some speculated; on Thursday Painter confirmed Smith caught an inadvertent elbow from Moore in practice.) Whatever the reason for Barlow’s absence, the Boilermakers will have to spread their minutes and make up for Barlow’s unique ability to guard a variety of positions in Purdue’s pressing man-to-man.
What to look for: Can Purdue right the ship? The Boilermakers ended an otherwise peerless Big Ten season with back-to-back losses (at Iowa, to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament). Will Purdue’s shots start falling again? How will Barlow’s absence affect Purdue’s defense, if at all? The first question could yield legitimate answers; surprisingly enough St. Peter’s boasts a top 20 defense per adjusted efficiency. The second question may be more difficult to gauge, as the Peacocks are among the nation’s worst offensive teams. But the shorthanded Boilermakers could go a long way toward proving itself to suddenly skeptical fans by handling a sneaky-tough No. 14 seed Friday.
Quotable: “It's kind of cool, I guess, in a way, that the President picks us to go to Elite Eight. But it's the reason that you play the games. I guess those people that they have us beating, I know they're not probably too happy about that.” -- Purdue forward Johnson on President Barack Obama’s prediction that Purdue will advance to the Elite Eight.
How they got here: Georgetown’s path to the tournament was never in doubt. But thanks to an untimely injury to starting point guard Chris Wright, the Hoyas lost their last four games down the stretch and, averaged 51.5 points per game in that span. Wright’s injury derailed a major mid-season surge; after starting 1-4 in Big East play, Georgetown won eight straight Big East games from Jan. 15 to Feb. 13, including a reputation-making win at Syracuse on Feb. 9. VCU, on the other hand, took the long road to the tournament. The Rams were one of the last four at-large teams included in this year’s field -- much to the chagrin of those who believed Colorado and Virginia Tech were more deserving -- but Shaka Smart’s team made the most of the opportunity with its win over USC in Dayton Wednesday night.
Players to watch: “Key player” is too understated a term for Wright. “Lifeblood” is more accurate. Wright isn’t Georgetown’s best or most efficient player; that honor goes to preseason Big East player of the year Austin Freeman. But the past three weeks have offered a clear picture of how Wright’s absence affects the Hoyas, and the picture isn’t pretty. The Georgetown guard responded well to four straight days of full practice this week, and the Hoyas will be glad to have him on the court. Defensively, Georgetown will be keen to stop VCU’s Jamie Skeen, a former Wake Forest transfer who has the size, athleticism and skill to play in the post or stretch defenses with the perimeter shot.
What to look for: It’s never a surprise when a team that loses its point guard struggles to maintain its prior level of play, but it is rare to see a team fall off so far without one player. But it’s really rather simple. With Wright, the Hoyas were one of the Big East’s best teams. Without him, they were barely mediocre. Wright’s presence could be the difference between an early exit and a deep tourney run, but is he really at full strength? And if not, can the Hoyas hold off a hot VCU team that rolled to the CAA tournament final and manhandled an athletic USC team?
Quotable: “Stairmaster. I think I was on a stairmaster, which is probably harder than anything I’ve ever had to do. That's very hard. I don't want to do it anymore.” -- Georgetown guard Chris Wright, on what he did to stay in shape during rehab.