CHICAGO -- If you told most Purdue fans that the Boilers would turn the ball over only seven times and score 76 points, they would all start packing for the Sweet 16. Instead, they are packing for the short drive back to West Lafayette after a 94-76 pasting by Virginia Commonwealth.
Before each half, every team in America at every level goes through the layup line, but that drill has never been more important for a team that it was for the Rams on Sunday night. VCU, which is known more as a 3-point shooting team, broke down Purdue’s once-formidable defense repeatedly, getting to the rim for 21 layups or dunks. Twenty-one!
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And it could have been worse. The Rams actually missed another dozen, meaning 33 of their 65 shots on the game came at the rim. Ten of those came in the first half. I thought I saw a little more intensity in the layup line at halftime.
VCU coach Shaka Smart said the plan was to attack the basket, but he also thought JaJuan Johnson might make that possible.
"It's a combination of the way we've been playing, which has been a very aggressive style, an attacking style," Smart said, when asked how his team got to the rim so easily. Also, "[Johnson] doesn't commit a lot of fouls. So we wanted to really go at him inside and their other bigs and see if he was going to stand up to us and foul, or let us shoot layups."
Johnson knows he has to stay on the floor. He’s too big to fail for Purdue. So, he tries to block shots while keeping his body away from contact. It’s something at which he excels. He got his hands on three of VCU's shots, but most of them went around and over him. And in.
Even guys who don’t play much, like Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley, both freshmen, had big games. Reddic scored 12 points in only ten minutes and Haley added six in nine minutes. And of course, almost all of those points came in the paint.
Rams point guard Joey Rodriguez was the guy to make all this happen. The team had a remarkable 26-4 assist-to-turnover ratio. Rodriguez ran the offense flawlessly, with 11 assists and no turnovers. He got the ball to the right guy at the right time pretty much every time. He also had 12 points, so sometimes, he was the right guy at the right time.
"[Rodriguez] was the difference in the game," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "He ran the team. He found shooters. He found guys diving. We just had a difficult time getting him corralled and getting him stopped."
For Purdue's seniors, it was a rough end to their college careers. Johnson had a generally good game, with 25 points and 14 boards, but it could have been even bigger. He missed a lot of relatively easy shots he normally would make, especially in the first half.
Moore never really found a rhythm, thanks in part to Ed Nixon's defense. He finished with 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting, and missed several shots that Purdue fans are used to seeing fall.
Perhaps the most despondent senior was the one who sat on the bench in street clothes. Injured star Robbie Hummel was inconsolable for quite a long time after the game. He missed the entire season with a torn ACL, which occurred on the second day of practice. It was the same knee in which he tore an ACL last February, costing him the end of last season.
Had Hummel remained healthy, many people think Purdue would have had a great shot at their second successive Final Four. Certainly, he feels that way. After the game, Painter said about Hummel, "The things that have happened to him, you couldn't control. That's a tough pill to swallow. You still carry some guilt even though you couldn't control it, like if I could have been out there helping those guys, maybe this wouldn't have happened. So I think you have a lot of honest feelings at this time. He feels for E'Twaun and JaJuan."
Hummel will try again next season, but for now, it will be the Rams moving on to San Antonio for their first Sweet 16, which was the team's goal entering the tournament. Coach Smart isn't worried about a letdown. "These guys are hungry guys. Joey’s nuts. He wants to win the whole thing."
After this weekend, nobody here thinks they can't.