The marquee matchup everybody wanted will take place tonight in the Paradise Jam Tournament finals, as Purdue and Tennessee square off in the first top ten showdown of the college basketball season. The Vols were untested by East Carolina in their first game in the Virgin Islands, but pushed throughout by DePaul in a defensive battle won by UT 57-53. Purdue has struggled in the first half of both of their Paradise Jam games, but pulled away in the second half each time: they lead South Dakota state by two at the break in the opener before winning by eleven, and led St. Joseph's by only one before outscoring them 54-30 in the second half.
The Boilermakers went 27-10 last year, winning the Big Ten Tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16. They returned six players with starting experience, but lost guard Lewis Jackson to a foot injury. Like all good teams, Purdue can hurt you from inside and outside. The Vols will face one of their most difficult tests of the season in terms of post defense, going against 6'8" Robbie Hummel (13 points, 6 boards per) and leading scorer 6'10" JaJuan Johnson (15 points, 7 boards per). Hummel is also capable of stepping out and hitting the three. Guard E'Twaun Moore dropped 22 on South Dakota State and is the team's second leading scorer.
The contrasting styles of both teams may hold the greatest key to victory: the Vols want to run and have struggled in the halfcourt offense ever since Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith left, while Purdue would love to slow the pace and use DePaul's blueprint with their superior talent to grind the Vols down. If Purdue can slow Tennessee down, will the Vols be able to score in their halfcourt offense? And how will Tennessee defend against Purdue inside?
The Vols will need Scotty Hopson to play well - a good performance against a top ten team will ease everyone's mind about his 2 for 11 display yesterday, but if Hopson struggles again, we'll have to throw that inconsistent label back on him for now. If Cameron Tatum heats up from outside again, even better. We know we'll get the usual from Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, but will it be more than Purdue gets from Hummel and Johnson?
This will be a great test for the Vols against what should turn out to be the type of team we'll have to beat in March to reach our ultimate goals. Tennessee hasn't won a tournament of any kind in nine years...can this group break the trend and make a huge statement that this team is good enough to achieve its goals and reach new heights this season? 8:30 PM EST, Fox College Sports (simulcast on Fox Sports Net).
For more on Purdue, check out Hammer & Rails.