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Purdue embraces underdog role against UConn in pursuit of program's first NCAA championship

b8vTr9Hoby:Mike Carmin04/07/24

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The question was in the middle of Braden Smith’s wheelhouse.

He actually smiled while the question was asked on Sunday.

“I don’t know if you’ve played a game in your career where you’ve been the underdog but you’re the underdog (Monday). How does that change your mindset coming in? Is that something you guys have talked about?”

It was set up on a tee and Smith delivered a line drive, as expected.

“Personally, my whole life I’ve been the underdog whether it’s high school or here as a point guard,” Smith said. “I’ve always been the underdog and I love it. I love the challenge and I think any competitor loves the challenge.

“It’s not going to be easy but when you have a team full of guys that want the challenge and accept the challenge, it’s going to be a good game.”

For the record, the Boilermakers have been an underdog – based on the betting line – twice this season. They were a 2.5-point underdog against Arizona in Indianapolis and a 1.5-point underdog at Illinois late in the season.

Monday night’s NCAA national title matchup against Connecticut (9:20 p.m. ET, TBS), the defending champion, puts Purdue in an unfamiliar role this season. The Huskies are favored by 6 or 6.5 points.

The Boilermakers have carried the weight of the favorite’s role most of the season. They were expected to win the Big Ten regular season and the conference tournament, advance to the Final Four and handle North Carolina State in Saturday’s semifinals.

It’s role reversal time.

Although Purdue has been impressive during the NCAA tournament – and most of the season – UConn raised its level in an attempt to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

The Huskies have won 11 straight NCAA games, including five in this tournament, by an average of 24.4 points. No one—Stetson, Northwestern, San Diego State, Illinois, or Alabama—has seriously threatened UConn in the second half. The Fighting Illini thought they were close until the Huskies pieced together a 30-0 run.

All of those numbers have labeled UConn as an unstoppable force destined to win another national championship.

“We learned to stay away from that, stick to ball movement taking care of the ball and locking down defensively,” Smith said.

But the Boilermakers have the confidence to not only hang with UConn but claim the program’s first NCAA championship. Zach Edey and company have been pointing to this moment since losing to No. 16 seed FDU in last year’s first round in Columbus, Ohio.

They’re trying to follow Virginia’s path in 2019 when the Cavaliers lost to a No. 16 seed in the first round and won the national title, including a victory over Purdue in the Elite Eight the next season.

“They gave us the blueprint,” senior Ethan Morton said. “It’s kind of ironic how it’s worked out that way.”

The Cavaliers demonstrated how it’s done. It’s up to the Boilermakers to take it another step and complete the redemption tour.

“I think it’s actually an accurate narrative. Sometimes people will pick up narratives out of thin air instead of doing their work. This is actually the right narrative,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.

The matchups are as juicy as they get with the perceived two best teams in the country playing in the season’s last game with a national championship at stake.

The 7-foot-4 Edey battling Donovan Clingan and his 7-2 frame and shot-blocking ability. The matchup on the perimeter with Smith, Fletcher Loyer and Lance Jones facing Tristen Newton, Cam Spencer and Stephon Castle.

Two great rebounding teams. Two teams that are hard-nosed on defense. Two teams that have been on a mission – one to repeat and the other to finish the job they set out to accomplish last season.

“We’ve been the two best programs the past two years, us and Purdue,” UConn’s Tristen Newton said. “It’s a great matchup. We’re looking forward to it.”

Newton’s comment isn’t far off. The Boilermakers are 63-10 the last two seasons, and the Huskers are 69-11. But UConn has the trophy from last year that Purdue – and its fan base – desperately crave and is eager to hoist its own Monday night.

“We’re going to go in there and play like we have a chip on our shoulder,” senior Lance Jones said. “We have a lot to prove.”

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