3 reasons Purdue can upset UConn in national championship game

The narrative has been everywhere for the last couple of weeks: UConn is a juggernaut, a monster, an unstoppable force. Some of us have even written that the Huskies becoming college basketball’s first back-to-back national champion since Florida in 2006-07 feels inevitable.

But what if we’ve all just been overlooking the team that has appeared to be the Huskies’ equal since the moment this season tipped off in November? What if we’re just foolishly glossing over the fact that the only obstacle standing between UConn and a second straight national title just so happens to be the biggest and most significant obstacle in the sport?

What if we’ve been looking at this wrong all month?

Here are three reasons why Purdue could pull off a “shouldn’t have been that shocking” upset in Monday night’s men’s national championship game.

1. UConn hasn’t faced a team this good in the last two tournaments

The numbers surrounding UConn’s last two runs through March Madness are astounding. The Huskies haven’t just won 11 straight games in the NCAA tournament, they’ve won 11 straight games in the NCAA tournament all by 13 points or more, easily covering the spread in each contest.

“We make a hard tournament look easy,” UConn head coach Danny Hurley said after his team’s 86-72 win over Alabama on Saturday. “It’s crazy.”

Here’s the other thing, though: UConn also hasn’t faced a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed in those 11 NCAA tournament games.

Purdue isn’t just “the next team” on Connecticut’s postseason highway of destruction, it is without question the best team the Huskies have faced in an NCAA tournament game under Hurley.

Let’s remember that had the Boilermakers not lost in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, it would have almost certainly been Matt Painter’s team, and not Hurley’s, which would have earned the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday. While UConn may have looked like the best team for the bulk of the season, it was Purdue which had the more complete resume right up until Selection Sunday Eve.

Let’s also remember that Purdue has been nearly as dominant as UConn during this tournament. The Boilermakers have won all but one of their games in the big dance by 12 points or more. Their only “close call” during this run has been a 72-66 triumph in the Elite Eight over a second-seeded Tennessee team that is without question better than any of the opponents Connecticut has had to go through up to this point.

Purdue is No. 2 on KenPom, and would likely vault into the top spot with a win this evening. The previous highest-ranked KenPom team the Huskies have faced in the tournament over the last two years? No. 8 Gonzaga in last season’s Elite Eight.

The Boilermakers have the best player and the most unique challenge in the sport on their roster, and unlike last year, they have a bolstered supporting cast that can beat the best teams in the country if they hyper-focus on the big man in the middle.

No one knows how UConn is going to respond in the final minutes of a close game on a stage like this, because it hasn’t happened yet. Purdue is more than capable of putting the Huskies in that position for the first time in two years.

2. Zach Edey’s presence should minimize the impact of UConn’s biggest advantage

Tristen Newton was a First Team All-American this season. Stephon Castle is almost certainly going to be a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. Cam Spencer is an assassin in key moments, and Alex Karaban has the experience of being a starter and producing on this same stage a year ago.

None of those guys have been UConn’s postseason MVP.

That distinction belongs to the man in the middle, sophomore center Donovan Clingan, who is averaging 16.2 ppg, 10.8 rpg, and 3.5 bpg while shooting just under 70 percent from the field in the NCAA tournament. The Most Outstanding Player of the East Regional has been almost impossible to score on in the paint throughout the tournament.


The issue for UConn is that Clingan doesn’t present anywhere near the problem for Purdue that he presents for any other team in the country.

Zach Edey is bigger than Clingan, and if we’re going to get directly to the point, he’s better than Clingan. The Husky center will get his in the first meeting of 7-footers in a title game since Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984, but dominating game six the same way he dominated games 1-5 feels like an impossibility.

UConn had an elite big man in Adama Sanogo last season, but he didn’t carry the Huskies to last Monday of the season the way that Clingan has carried this group. Jordan Hawkins was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2023 West Regional, and Newton was the player who led the team in scoring and rebounding in the title game.

UConn certainly has the weapons necessary to make up for a dramatic dip in production from Clingan on Monday night, but if those weapons don’t step up, there’s no safety net there for them in this round.

3. The past has no bearing on this game

I’m not trying to say that UConn doesn’t deserve to be favored in this game, they do. But the fact that the spread is 6.5 and no one outside of West Lafayette seems to be giving Purdue a chance feels … strange.

It’s hard not to think that the March reputations of both these programs and the narratives surrounding them aren’t playing a factor here.

Connecticut is the king of this stage. They ripped through the NCAA tournament in historic fashion last season, and are a blowout of Purdue away from completing the most dominant run to a title in March Madness history. The Huskies have won five national championships in their history — all since 1999 — and are 5-0 in national title games.

Purdue, meanwhile, has a claim to the dubious title of “best program to never win a national championship.” The stigma of March disappointment has been attached to them for decades, but never as strongly as over the last three years, when they had seen their seasons ended at the hands of a 13-seed, a 15-seed and a 16-seed, respectively. The Boilermakers also hail from a conference that, famously, has not produced a national champion since 2000.

Every predictive metric out there has this as a game that will be decided by two or three points, and yet here we are, with a 6.5-point spread that most of the betting public believes UConn will easily cover. It’s fair to wonder if the same would be true had Purdue won a national championship, say two or three years ago, and been to a handful of Final Fours over the last 15 seasons.

The comforting thing for Purdue fans is that absolutely nothing about the past is going to have any bearing on what takes place Monday evening in Glendale. The Boilermakers have looked like a worthy challenger to UConn’s throne for every day of the last five months, and now they have their opportunity to prove it.

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