The Phil Knight Legacy isn’t, strictly, speaking a seeded tournament, but you could be forgiven for looking at the bracket and mistaking it for one. There are four teams on each side of the draw. Each side has a favorite (Duke, Gonzaga), a patsy (Oregon State, Portland State), and a matchup of legitimate challengers (Xavier/Florida, Purdue/West Virginia). We’ve already taken a look at how Xavier and Florida matchup; let’s break down what’s shaking on the other side of the bracket.
Bob Huggins is still in charge in West Virginia, doing the same basic things he has done for the past 30ish years as a head basketball coach. His teams are built on high-speed rick fight basketball. At their best, they boast a smothering press that causes chaos at one end leading to easy baskets on the other. Other than a bad 2019 team and the weird 2021 season, they’ve ended each of the last 8 seasons in the top 30 in TO rate. They commit a lot of fouls and allow opportunities on the glass, but that’s the tradeoff for that play style. On offense, they play like guys who are really good at defense. You have to go back to 2004 (!) to find a Huggins team in the top 100 in EFG%, but they crash the offensive boards like there’s no tomorrow and get to the line well. Sometimes this works, like when they started last year 13-2. Sometimes it doesn’t, like when they lost 14 of their next 15 games and crashed out of postseason contention.
A team that struggled to score probably doesn’t need to lose it’s top two scorers, but that’s what happened to the Mountaineers this season. Guard Taz Sherman put up 17.7 PPG and had the team’s highest shots percentage, but he’s off pursuing professional opportunities. Wing Sean McNeil put up 12.2 a game and led the team in three-point shooting; he’ll be an Ohio State Buckeye this year. Guard Malik Curry was third on the team with 9.7 PPG, but he has also exhausted his eligibility. Rounding out the players who averaged more than 6 PPG is Jalen Bridges, but he transferred to Baylor. That makes defensive ace Kedrian Johnson, who averaged 5.3 PPG on an ORtg 92.7 last year, the team’s leading returning scorer. He was 7th in the nation with a 4.7% steal rate.
Losing all that is going to leave West Virginia with some holes to fill, and they’re expecting a big transfer class to help with that. Tops on that list is Tre Mitchell, a 6’9”, 220-pound big man who spent two years crushing at UMass before posting 9 and 4 at Texas last season. Guard Emmitt Matthews, Jr. dropped 12 PPG at Washington last year on .434/.336/.755 shooting; he’ll coming over to step into the backcourt. Joining him as guards are Joe Toussaint, who distributes well and proved himself a ball-hawking defender at Iowa last year, and Erik Stevenson, who went for 11.6/4.7/2.8 as a volume scorer as a South Carolina Gamecock. JuCo big man Pat Suemnick and Mohamed Wague join three-star recruits Josiah Harris - a power forward out of Cleveland - and Josiah Davis - a guard from Teays Valley Christian School - to round out the newcomers.
West Virginia is 28th in the Torvik rankings and 73rd in the KenPom preseason. After a down year last year, they lost a lot of bodies and replaced them with a mishmash of high-level transfers, internal options, and depth guys. If you squint, you can see the building blocks of something good there. It takes time to fit guys into a system and get them clicking, and time is something Bob Huggins doesn’t have enough of before Thanksgiving. I’d be surprised to see the Mountaineers hitting a stride that early in the season, but if they are, they’ll be a formidable opponent for whichever teams cross their path.
If Purdue fans aren’t called Purdooligans, they should be.
Beyond that, the Boilermakers are in a rich vein of form right now. Matt Painter has been running the show since the ‘05-’06 season, making 13 tournaments and 6 Sweet 16s in that time, with one of those runs extending all the way to the Elite 8. Painter has flirted with exciting basketball a couple of times in that stretch, but for the past half a dozen years or so he has played extremely low-tempo ball. His defenses pack in and deny the glass but barely force any turnovers, and his offenses grind mercilessly at a glacial pace. I think his strategies are largely personnel based, and he has recently had some dominant big men, so I don’t think it’s practical to read too much into the numbers here. He figures out who his best dudes are and builds the game plan around them, and there’s something to be said for that.
Last year’s leading scorer was guard Jaden Ivey. He put up 17.3/4.9/3.1 per game and parlayed that into being a lottery pick, so good on him. Similarly gone is big man Trevion Williams, who posted a brutally efficient 12/7/3 but went undrafted and was signed and cut by the Warriors. Guard Sasha Stefanovic averaged 10.4 per game and hit 38% of his threes; after playing summer ball for the Spurs, he signed a pro contract in Greece, which I hear is a very pretty country. That rounds out players who scored 10+ PPG and are leaving, though guard Eric Hunter, Jr. scored 6 per and hit 44% of his threes last season before transferring to Butler.
The headliner coming back is obviously center Zach Edey. He’s 7’4”, 295 and averaged 14.4/7.7/1.2. As you might expect, he crushes the glass at both ends, protects the rim, and has zero career three-point attempts. Forward Mason Gillis seems primed for a big step forward; he put up 6.4/4.8/1.1 on a 130.4 ORtg last year, can score from all three levels, and should step into the hole left by Trevion Williams. A little deeper on the depth chart, big man Caleb Furst has a sweet stroke and gets to the offensive glass well; he should be a valuable bench piece to spell Edey in the post.
Incoming players are sparse, but the gem of the class is 6’5” guard Fletcher Loyer. He’s the younger brother of Foster Loyer and he can absolutely shoot the eyes out of the ball. He committed almost two years ago and hasn’t done anything to lessen his reputation as an absolute sniper since. Wing Camden Heide is also listed at 6’5”, but he’s visibly thicker than Loyer. While he’s also a capable shooter, he brings a more physical presence to the floor and will likely spend more time getting into the mixer a bit. Braden Smith is the final member of the class, a 6’ point guard who brings an excellent shot and good feel for the game. Adding to all these new faces is itinerant guard David Jenkins, Jr. who played two seasons at South Dakota State before single years at UNLV and Utah. He averaged 8.5 PPG last year, but he averaged at least 14.8 in each of his first three seasons and is a career 40.7% shooter from deep.
Purdue has a solid core built around man-mountain Edey in the middle, and Painter - despite getting the usual amount of criticism that any long tenured coach without an Final Four appearance gets - is a solid head man. Both Torvik and KenPom see this as a borderline top 25 team, and who am I to argue? The proof will be in the pudding though, and Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams took a ton of productivity with them when they left. If David Jenkins can step up on the perimeter and internal options can fill in around Edey in the middle, this is a team that will once again find itself hunting for a solid seed heading into March.