The Daily Jay: NCAA Basketball Championship — Showdown of big men as Purdue meets UConn

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April 7, 2024
By Charles Jay

I said back when we in the Elite Eight that this UConn Huskies team was like a locomotive that couldn’t be stopped; that they were going to continue to roll through teams by double digits right until the end.

But as we approach the tip-off for Monday night’s championship game, I’m not so sure about that.

It is true that Connecticut is on a run like no other team I can remember. They beat every team by double digits in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and have done the same thus far in the Big Dance.

They’ve got future pros in the lineup like Tristen Newton (now second in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings), freshman Stephon Castle, who is going to find himself going in the NBA Draft lottery, and Cam Spencer, who is the most efficient offensive player in the country, according to KenPom.

On top of that, they have a human eraser by the name of Donovan Clingan.

Clingan takes control in the lane like no one in college basketball, which is why the pros like him so much. In his last four games he’s played 101 minutes and had 18 blocked shots and 28 defensive rebounds. His offensive game may not be refined all that much yet, but he has still made 65% of his attempts.

This sets up as a tremendous encounter between monster big men, as Clingan will try to contend with Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey, who has just won the national Player of the Year award for the second consecutive season.

They both play their position at an elite level, so one of the big questions when looking at this game is – which center can do a better job of mitigating whaty the other center can do?

In the NCAA basketball championship odds on this game, as we are using in WagerWAR, the Huskies are laying some points:

UConn Huskies -7
Purdue Boilermakers +7

Over 143.5 points -110
Under 143.5 points -110

In the semifinal win over Alabama, Clingan had 18 points and four blocked shots in 29 minutes. That’s not the longest he’s gone this season, but it’s pretty rare for him to log that much playing time. Edey, by contrast, has played 40, 39 and 38 minutes in his last three games.

You can almost assure yourself that there are going to be about 8-10 minutes in this game where Edey is out there without Clingan to oppose him. And unless Connecticut is very successful running Edey ragged with a small lineup, the Boilermakers should be able to extract an edge. It has not been in UConn’s character to operate at a breakneck pace; they are 300th when it comes to possession time on offense.

The key may lie in Purdue’s ability to hit shots from the outside.

At any given time, the Boilermakers can out a 7-4 center out there who can command a double team with three players who have tremendous shooting percentages from three-point range. What’s different about the dynamic here is that the Huskies may not have to double team Edey as long as they have a defensive standout like Clingan in the game, but that doesn’t mean their guys can’t shoot.

Braden Smith is 43% from downtown. Fletcher Loyer is almost 45%, and Mason Gillis is 47%. As a team, Purdue is 40.6% from three-point range, which is second best in the nation.

The challenge is that they have to indeed hit those shots when they have an opportunity to do so.

Purdue hopes that Smith doesn’t have a repeat of his semifinal appearance, as he made just one of nine field goals and turned the ball over five times against NC State. Usually he’s been pretty consistent; in the previous five games he had 48 assists and only ten turnovers.

You have to admire what kind of presence Samson Johnson can bring to the table for the Huskies. But he’s not bulky enough to handle Edey on the defensive end of the floor.

So Connecticut should hope that Clingan doesn’t get himself into foul trouble. He is not the kind of guy who can step back and make triples, like, say, Victor Wembanyama. But he knows his way around the lane. And he leads the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. If I was UConn, I’d be worried about Clingan’s ability to stay in this game.

We aren’t about to diminish what the Huskies have been able to do so far; not by a long shot. But it’s not out of line to say that in these last two NCAA Tournaments, this is the stiffest challenge they’ve faced.

We know that UConn has been a terrific favorite, posting a 27-11 ATS record. But Purdue is 8-1-1 ATS against ranked opponents.

The Huskies may well win this game, but the Boilermakers can keep this thing close. So we’ve taken seven points with Purdue in WagerWAR, and out a little something on the money line (+265) as well.

Author: channeljay
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