March Madness: UConn vs. Purdue is Dream Men’s Title Game Matchup

The Huskies are looking for back-to-back championships while the Boilermakers will attempt to complete a redemption arc after years of futility.
Clingan and Hurley will try to repeat as national champions on Monday.
Clingan and Hurley will try to repeat as national champions on Monday. / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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The potential national title game matchup circled by men’s college basketball fans all season has come to fruition.

The UConn Huskies, in search of back-to-back titles and a spot among the best teams of all time, will take on the Purdue Boilermakers, a team attempting to complete a remarkable redemption arc from years of NCAA tournament futility. It features the two-time defending National Player of the Year (Zach Edey), multiple future NBA lottery picks (Donovan Clingan, Stephon Castle and maybe even Edey) and two elite coaches in Dan Hurley and Matt Painter with wildly different personalities. If you could have scripted a way for this season to end, you’d have picked this match. 

Purdue is up against a UConn team that has been overwhelmingly dominant for two straight tournaments. In their 11 wins across the two Big Dances, the Huskies haven’t won by fewer than 13 points, and until Saturday’s test from the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Huskies had led by 30 or more in each of their first four games in this tournament. 

That said, UConn hasn’t seen a team as good as Purdue in the last two tournaments. The Boilermakers will be the first No. 1 or No. 2 seed UConn has faced in this two-year run, with the best previously being a pair of No. 3 seeds in the Gonzaga Bulldogs (2023) and Illinois Fighting Illini (’24).

Here’s a look inside the matchup. 

Who wins Edey vs. Clingan? 

If you were to build a big man in a lab to try to stop Edey, you’d probably come up with something like Clingan. UConn’s massive center is one of the most impactful defenders in the last decade of college basketball, a ferocious rim protector who has made UConn the second-best two-point defense in the nation this season. He has the size and length to challenge Edey’s shots at the rim while also possessing the strength and physicality to try to defend Edey one-on-one in the post. 

Edey has dominated nearly every matchup over the last two seasons, but Clingan presents a new challenge.
Edey has dominated nearly every matchup over the last two seasons, but Clingan presents a new challenge. / Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, Edey has dominated pretty much every matchup for the last two seasons. He draws more fouls than any player in the country, has pushed around even the best post defenders and perhaps most importantly, has ridiculous stamina for a player of his size. Edey didn’t leave the game against the NC State Wolfpack and sat just three total minutes in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight combined. That puts immense pressure on defenses, and Edey will likely feast in one-on-one matchups against UConn backup big man Samson Johnson. 

UConn’s clearest path to winning this game is Clingan winning the matchup with Edey. He can do that not by shutting Edey down, but by making him work for every basket and avoiding foul trouble enough to stay on the floor. Simply allowing UConn to play Edey one-on-one and not get forced into rotations that turn into open threes would be huge. 

Can Braden Smith bounce back? 

Overshadowed in Saturday’s win over NC State was the fact that Purdue point guard Braden Smith really struggled. He didn’t score until a late three with the outcome no longer in doubt, committed five turnovers and generally looked rattled at times by NC State’s ball pressure. Smith’s emergence into one of the nation’s best floor generals has been essential in Purdue’s bounce back, and there’s no doubt the Boilermakers will need him in a matchup like this. 

Smith struggled in the Boilermakers’ Final Four win over NC State.
Smith struggled in the Boilermakers’ Final Four win over NC State. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Smith’s struggles, however, have generally coincided with being guarded by bigger, more athletic guards. That’s a strength for UConn, whose guards are all 6’4” or taller. Could the Huskies match up elite perimeter defender Castle on Smith and try to really disrupt Smith? 

Is there an edge on the glass? 

Purdue is an elite rebounding team, generating tons of second chances and limiting opponents to one shot at one of the best rates in the country. Those Boilermaker second chances are often backbreakers, too, turning into Edey putbacks or kick-out threes for open shooters in scramble situations. When you combine tons of offensive rebounds, tons of free throws and elite three-point shooting, you get an offensive output that is essentially impossible to stop. 

UConn, however, hasn’t lost the rebounding battle since Jan. 10 against the Xavier Musketeers. Part of that, of course, is how ridiculously efficient the Huskies are on both ends of the floor. But as a whole, UConn does a phenomenal job on the glass and had some absolutely massive boards to take back control after Alabama delivered a punch. UConn’s elite rebounding also keys its transition game, which has been lethal and a major key in sparking the scoring runs that have defined the Huskies all tournament. 

Legacies on the line 

Purdue winning its first-ever national championship would be the culmination of nearly two decades of building from Painter, a journey that has produced perhaps more March heartbreak than any other team in that period. A win for Painter would cement his legacy as one of the best coaches of this generation and could earn him an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. 

For Edey, closing his storied career at Purdue by delivering a title would put him in the conversation among the sport’s most accomplished players ever. With two NPOYs, a pair of Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and a national championship, Edey would certainly be the sport’s most decorated player since Tyler Hansbrough. And in an era of most stars turning pro early, Edey would be the true four-year star the sport has starved for. His legacy is remarkable already, but this would be the cherry on top. 

The “all-time team” debate is a rather nebulous one, but UConn would belong in that conversation with a win. At some point, the utter dominance displayed by the Huskies, particularly given the context of losing key pieces from last season’s title, starts to move the needle. They’d likely be the highest-rated team on KenPom to win the title since Duke in 2001 and the second-highest rated title winner since KenPom started tracking in 1997. Rank them how you want, but this UConn team would be among the better champions in recent history.


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Kevin Sweeney

KEVIN SWEENEY

Kevin Sweeney is a staff writer at Sports Illustrated covering college basketball and the NBA Draft, and is an analyst for The Field of 68. A graduate of Northwestern, Kevin is a voter for the Naismith Trophy and is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).