Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Ryan Cline picked one heck of a time to have his best game in a Purdue jersey. The senior guard drained six second-half three-pointers en route to a career-high 27 points in the Boilermakers’ 99-94 overtime victory over Tennessee in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup in Louisville.
All year long, Purdue has been “The Carsen Edwards Show,” and it was once again a good night for the Big Ten’s highest-scoring player of the last two decades. Edwards finished with 29 points, including a pair of clutch free throws with 1.7 seconds remaining to send the game into an extra session.
Cline was the hero, though.
He scored 12 of Purdue’s final 15 points in regulation, and the net didn’t move a millimeter on any of those four three-pointers.
His previous career high was 21 points, and he bested that mark by two daggers.
On three of those four late triples, Cline stroked it in rhythm moments after receiving a pass, as he so often has over the past four seasons. But on his final bucket, he did to Grant Williams what Kemba Walker did to Gary McGhee in the 2011 Big East tournament. The red-hot shooter got switched onto a frontcourt player and put a step-back jumper right in his eye with the clock winding down:
It was quite the 180 for Cline.
In last year’s Sweet 16, he had one of the worst games of his career. He played 16 minutes against Texas Tech, finishing with one rebound, one turnover and no points on just one shot.
Simply put, he was a ghost.
This March, he is the reason Purdue is headed to the Elite Eight.
Cline has always been a good shooter. He made at least 40 threes and no fewer than 38.5 percent of his deep attempts in all four seasons with the Boilermakers. But it wasn’t until this year—after Purdue lost four of its five starters from the 2017-18 roster—that he was finally given a prominent role in the offense.
In an era during which so many players transfer if they aren’t immediately handed starting jobs as freshmen, Cline’s patience was rewarded. He is Purdue’s second-leading scorer, its top assist man and—at least for one night—the star of a team going to a regional final for the first time since 2000.
Given those four lost starters from last season, it’s hard to believe this is the Boilermakers roster that finally got the job done.
They had Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson together for three seasons (2008-10) and never made it past the Sweet 16. In 2016, they had A.J. Hammons as a senior and Caleb Swanigan as a freshman, only to immediately lose to Arkansas-Little Rock in the first round. The past two years, they got to the Sweet 16 before running into brick walls from the Big 12.
Seven times in the previous 11 seasons, Matt Painter’s guys earned a No. 6 seed or better, but they always bowed out before the Elite Eight. All seven of those Purdue teams were built for deep runs. For one reason or another (injuries, foul trouble, tough draw, etc.), they never capitalized.
As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to win when you basically can’t miss from three-point range.
Purdue shot 15-of-31 from deep against Tennessee after going 16-of-30 in the second-round blowout of Villanova. Cline is 11-of-18 in those two games, while Edwards has been a less efficient but still lethal 14-of-30.
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press
Even when Villanova rode three-point barrages to the 2016 and 2018 national championships, the Wildcats never had back-to-back tournament games with 15 or more treys. In fact, only eight total games during the 2011-18 NCAA tournaments (an average of one per year) featured a team with at least 15 successful triples, per Sports Reference.
In other words, Purdue is in uncharted territory.
But if both Edwards and Cline keep shooting well—not exactly far-fetched, given their year-to-date stats—the Boilermakers might just mess around and play in a national championship for the first time in a half-century. (They lost to Lew Alcindor and UCLA in the 1969 title game.)
In an absolutely loaded field, they might enter the Elite Eight with the worst championship odds of any remaining team. But that doesn’t mean Purdue can’t do it. It more likely means most people haven’t realized how good this squad has been since early January.
Purdue’s defense was awful in the first half of the season, but its last 18 opponents (before Tennessee) had been held to 62.6 points per game on 39.0 percent shooting from the field and a 30.4 three-point percentage. Take out the bizarre 99-90 overtime contest against Penn State in late-January, and Purdue has barely allowed 60 points per game over the past three-plus months.
The Volunteers eventually got into a scoring rhythm in the second half, but even their elite offense had early trouble navigating this switch-everything man-to-man D. And neither Old Dominion nor Villanova was ever able to get going against Purdue last week.
Combine that defense with great offensive rebounding, limited turnovers and more than a couple of threes from the Cline/Edwards duo, and Purdue has the recipe to hang with anyone. Even if they would need to go through an ACC gauntlet of Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, not one of those No. 1 seeds would have an easy time with these Boilermakers.
Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.