LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Matt Painter hopes the road of elimination-like games Purdue traveled to get into the NCAA Tournament has his Boilermakers ready for the pressure they'll face on Thursday night.
Only one Boilermaker, guard Jon Octeus, has played a tournament game before transferring from Colorado State, while senior Neal Beshears was in uniform in 2012 for Purdue's last NCAA berth. With eighth-seeded Cincinnati making its fifth straight trip, the Bearcats have the edge in postseason experience.
So Painter has tried to focus on the big picture and what his Boilermakers do very well trying to build off what he sees as the preparation of being a loss or two away from missing the tournament the past three weeks.
"There's no substitute for the actual thing," Painter said. "We have a lot of guys outside of one that hasn't been here. You still have to play hard. You still have to produce."
Purdue won six of its final nine games to earn the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Regional with the winner likely playing top-ranked Kentucky on Saturday.
What the Boilermakers (21-12) do very well is play defense, and their opening game is as close to a Big Ten wrestling match as they can get outside their league. The Bearcats (22-10) may play in the American Athletic Conference, but their defense-first mentality fits in perfectly with Purdue.
These teams couldn't be much closer in a handful of categories with Cincinnati nationally in scoring defense, allowing 55.3 points per game while Purdue held 11 opponents to 59 points or less this season. Cincinnati ranks 21st holding opponents to 39.0 percent shooting, while Purdue led the Big Ten allowing only 39.3 percent shooting. Cincinnati ranks 13th in blocks, just one spot ahead of Purdue.
Purdue defends man to man while Cincinnati is disguising some of its inexperience this season using zone schemes. Cincinnati associate head coach Larry Davis said both teams play very similarly.
"As my dad used to say, there's 100 ways to skin a cat," Davis said. "You've just got to figure out which way is best for you."
Some things to watch Thursday night in the Purdue-Cincinnati matchup:
DAVIS HOLDING COURT: Cronin spoke in the locker room Wednesday, leaving the duties of talking at the podium to Davis. The Bears are 15-8 with Davis handling on-court responsibilities during practice and games. Cronin still oversees the program, but limits his interaction during drills and game situations while he recovers from the vascular condition called arterial dissection. Davis is believed to be the first interim coach in the tournament since 1989 when Rich Daly replaced the ill Norm Stewart at Missouri and Steve Fisher replaced Bill Frieder at Michigan.
BEARCATS' EXPERIENCE: None of Cincinnati's top five scorers actually started a game last season, and only four have played in a NCAA Tournament game. Senior Jermaine Sanders has the most experience with five games, and Cincinnati lost last season as the No. 5 seed and the year before as the 10th seed. So just when does a new player learn that defense matters most? "From the first day you step on campus, you know that the defense is what's going to get us to win the game," Sanders said.
PURDUE'S LAPSES: Scoring has been such an issue for the Boilermakers that they've gone through long droughts of 10 to 15 minutes, even though they shoot 45.3 percent as a team. Painter said Cincinnati does a great job of taking away a hot shooter, which will force Purdue to get the ball into the low post, score off the dribble and also hit jumpers.
TWIN TOWERS: Purdue's best advantage may be inside with 7-foot center A.J. Hammons, their leading scorer with 11.8 points per game. Painter also can sub Hammons out with 7-2 freshman Isaac Haas or put them on the court together.
DEFEND WITHOUT FOULING: Not only can Cincinnati make scoring a challenge, the Bearcats also do it with fouling as well as any in the country. They rank 10th averaging 14.7 fouls per game.