The dog days of the offseason are nigh. For reasons we can’t quite understand, instead of providing informative offseason content in his spare time, Kyle will have Offseason Movie Nights with old games he finds on the Internet. So dim the lights, throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave and get comfortable.
Fair warning: There will be spoilers.
Picture a Power-5 team with three future NBA Draft picks on its roster, two seven-footers and a top-20 offense and defense. Led by a three-time conference Coach of the Year, this team had a regular season title, a conference championship title and two Sweet-Sixteen appearances in 10 years. Throw in a passionate fanbase, an illustrious alumni base of astronauts and an on-campus airport, and the state of this Power-5 program was in decent shape entering the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Despite being a 5-seed, this program had the third-best odds at winning the Midwest Region.
Now picture this team’s polar opposite.
Picture a men’s basketball program that sent seven players to the NBA in its 38-year existence. This same school made the NCAA Tournament four times in 30 years, with only one postseason win to its name. Led by a well-traveled head coach, this program suited up equally nomadic players: 10 of the 17 players were onetime transfers, eight of whom had experience playing for non-Division I programs. Yet this plucky group of ACC castaways and JuCo journeymen posted a 29-4 record, a nation-leading 17-win turnaround and a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
On paper, 5-seeded Purdue shouldn’t have lost to a 12-seeded University of Arkansas-Little Rock team, much less this quixotic 12-seed from the Sun Belt. Purdue should have destroyed the Trojans.
Instead, their matchup in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was a low-scoring, double-overtime game that was a thrilling, yet bizarre affair. Purdue vs. Little Rock defied reason. It was a defensive slog-fest defined by one of the best individual second-half offensive efforts in recent memory. It was nearly-unwatchable at times, yet provided some of the most thrilling moments of the NCAA Tournament. Four ESPN100 recruits and an eventual Naismith Award Finalist played in this game, but the most dominant players were a diminutive, headband-garnered guard, a floppy-haired forward with a gigantic undershirt and a pinball with braids.
Naturally, it took two overtimes to sort out the nonsense, which ended up being one of many mid-major upsets in one of the best NCAA Tournaments of all-time.
So how on earth did Little Rock pull off this upset?
Defense was Little Rock’s calling card. First-year head coach Chris Beard aimed to wear down opponents by pairing a stingy man-to-man defense with a patient offense. On its best nights — there were many in Little Rock’s 29-4 regular season — the Trojan defense matched the intensity of its head coach: Players fought for loose balls, trapped relentlessly and moved frantically, mimicking the bouncy footwork of boxers. From an analytics standpoint, the Trojans cracked KenPom’s top-40 in defensive efficiency, held teams to 30% shooting from beyond the arc and baited opponents into committing nearly 14 turnovers per game.
The Trojans made life difficult for Purdue from the getgo. The characteristically disciplined Boilermakers committed seven first-half turnovers — including a rare over-and-back violation thanks to tenacious defense from Josh Hagins.
Despite surrendering the edge in athleticism and size, the Trojans pestered the Boilermakers and leapt out to a 12-7 lead. Little Rock’s lightning-quick backcourt of Hagins and Marcus Johnson hovered around 6’0 tall in shoes, yet they weren’t afraid to drive on A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas despite playing against one seven-footer all season (shouts to South Alabama’s Nikola Marijan). 6’6 Jalen Jackson, 6’4 Roger Woods and 6’1 Kemy Osse, gave up height to Purdue’s backcourt, yet these tweeners served as Little Rock’s forwards. But none of these physical attributes mattered. Little Rock kept pace with the Boilermakers.
But Purdue responded, and neither team looked dominant as the game see-sawed throughout the first half. Haas, Hammons and Vincent Edwards carried the Boilermaker offense. Even though Little Rock endured a pair of two-minute droughts, their pesky defense kept them in the game. But, strangely enough, for as dominating as Purdue had been throughout the season, their approach was surprisingly passive. The Boilermakers had yards of space ahead of them in the fast lane, yet they cruised at a comfortable 55.
College basketball fans had seen this movie before: Low seed strikes first, high seed lets low seed hang around, then the high seed’s athleticism wears down the low seed in the second half for an easy double-digit win. Pick any NCAA Tournament — nay, pick a region from any given tournament — and you’ll find a game following this script.
Up until this point, Purdue-Little Rock was a run-of-the-mill first-round matchup. While Purdue opened the second half with a 9-4 run, Little Rock looked like another overmatched mid-major with not enough left in the tank to pull the upset.
Sensing the Boilermakers would run their offense through Hammons, Haas and Swanigan, Little Rock packed in its defense. This adjustment favored the Boilermakers, who countered by working the ball inside, then kicking it out to open shooters on the perimeter. After going 3-10 from deep in the first half, the Boilermakers made three treys in less than 10 minutes.
Little Rock, meanwhile, was struggling to find its rhythm. The Trojans were stuck in the 30s for the majority of the second half. Beard’s timeout at the 17-minute mark wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding; the onetime Bob Knight assistant gradually assumed his mentor’s demeanor as the Trojans let the game get out of hand.
I won’t sugarcoat it: The Trojans were terrible.
Little Rock’s offense stalled. Meanwhile, Purdue left gave them several opportunities to get back in the game. Purdue committed turnovers, took ill-advised jumpers and denied Hammons and Swanigan opportunities to dominate inside, even though the duo shot 80% from the field. To their credit, Purdue’s guards found their rhythm in the half. But for every good play, a possession occurred where Edwards, Dakota Mathias and PJ Thompson danced around the perimeter, ignoring one of the Big Ten’s best frontcourts.
Purdue played well enough to hold a lead, but poorly enough to warrant some concern. Haas picked up a flagrant one foul for elbowing Wood’s head midway through the half, prompting Matt Painter to bench the 7’2 forward for the rest of the game. The Trojans could have cut their deficit to single digits after Hagins hit the ensuing free throws, but they turned it over on the next play. Thankfully for Purdue, Little Rock played worse.
With 5:01 to play, Edwards’s third three gave Purdue a 14 point lead, its largest of the night.
Then things got weird.
Johnson, a career 80% free-throw shooter, draws front iron twice. 6’5 forward Marius Hill out-muscles Hammons (who had 10 boards at this point in the game) for the rebound, then finds a streaking Hagins in the corner, who nails a three.
Sensing their moment slipping away, the Trojans ramp up their defensive pressure. Purdue responds by feeding Hammons, who draws contact and earns his last points of regulation at the free throw line. Naturally, the Boilermakers’ top-20 offense shows up to dash the comeback for good:
That’s not what happened.
Instead, Hagins and company come alive. The Trojans, who were once left for dead on offense, rattle off 10 unanswered points on 4-4 shooting from the field. In a baffling move, Painter doesn’t use any of his three timeouts until Hagins brings Little Rock within three.
Had the game ended in regulation, it’d be easy to say Purdue did more to lose this game than Little Rock did to win it. Given Painter’s slew of baffling decisions, this wouldn’t be an incorrect assessment: He didn’t let the three most physically-imposing people on the court get involved in the offense, didn’t trust his backup point guards, held onto his timeouts when momentum slipped away and glued a future 44% three-point shooter to the bench in a game where a few key threes might’ve given Purdue the lead for good. In some ways, without Painter, Little Rock’s comeback doesn’t happen.
But overlooking Little Rock’s resolve to pull the upset, hit the big shots and make Purdue look like Rutgers would be a disservice to the Trojans — especially to Hagins. The senior either scored or assisted on 15 of Little Rock’s last 21 points in regulation, including a game-tying three for the ages:
Of course, Hagins set his new career-high 31 points in the ensuing overtimes. And of course, the Trojans pulled off the upset in double-overtime. Although the Purdue upset would be Beard’s last win in Little Rock, he would cross paths with Painter’s Boilermakers two years later with Texas Tech in the 2018 Sweet Sixteen.
Except this time, Beard didn’t need two overtimes.
Find the full game here.