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Top-seeded Boilermakers return to March Madness with new look thanks to stronger backcourt

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer can already sense a difference this March.

His legs feel stronger, more rested and better conditioned for NCAA Tournament play. It's a welcome change for the top-seeded Boilermakers.

A year ago, their weary freshmen backcourt of Loyer and Braden Smith struggled mightily against 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, resulting in a March Madness upset for the ages. Now they're back, plotting a rebound for the history books.

"You could feel your legs starting to wear down a little bit last year and you have to figure out what you need to do to get yourself ready to play and feel good about yourself,” Loyer said Sunday following the NCAA Tournament draw. “So it's just doing that, finding a routine that works and now I’m really ready to go Friday.”

Loyer and Smith made a concerted effort in the offseason to return this season stronger and more focused. Each trimmed five pounds off their listed weight from 2022-23, hit the weight room and worked steadily on improving their shooting and decision-making.

Smith responded by dishing out 240 assists and breaking the single-season school record that stood for nearly a half century, flirted with multiple triple-doubles and earned first-team all-Big Ten honors. Loyer's shooting percentage increased from 32.9% in 2022-23 to 43.9% this season and he ranks second on the team with 54 3-pointers.

So as the Boilermakers start another opening tourney week studying two No. 16 seeds, Montana State and Grambling, Loyer and Smith sound much more confident they can get the job done in Friday night's first-round game in nearby Indianapolis.

"I think just knowing what all is coming, what all happens, how hard it is and the team’s we play, figuring out different ways to take care of your body and just resting is different,” Smith said. “I think we’ve done a lot better job this year than we did last year just because we’ve been through it and understand what’s going to come.”

Last March, most fans ignored what now seem like obvious warning signs.

Purdue went 4-4 in its last eight regular-season games, barely escaped the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals and nearly blew a 17-point, second-half lead against Penn State in the tourney title game before clinching a No. 1 seed.

Despite shooting a combined 39.6% from the field and 34.4% on 3-pointers over the entire season, Smith and Loyer made just 35.7% percent of their shots and 24.4% from beyond the arc over the 11 games leading into tourney play. Then in Game 35, against Fairleigh Dickinson, Smith and Loyer were 6 of 20 from the field, 4 of 14 on 3s and had seven assists and nine turnovers, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable against the Knights.

This year's closing stretch was different.

As 7-foot-4 center and reigning national player of the year Zach Edey continued to dominate in the post and Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year Mason Gillis continued to excel doing the gritty dirty work, it was the play of the second-year guards, the addition of energetic guard Lance Jones and some timely 3-pointers that fueled Purdue.

They've gone 15-2 since mid-January and won five straight by single digits before an overtime loss to Wisconsin in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Those two losses came by a total of five points.

“It feels different because we have better shooters," coach Matt Painter said. "You get in that last four or five minutes, Gillis nails a 3-pointer. You have confidence you're going to be able to do that. I think that's the real separation for this team. We're the second-best 3-point shooting team in the country (40.8%) and that gives us such a balance with Zach.”

Jones also has played a big role in striking that balance. With a team-high 69 3s and 12.2 points per game, the newcomer who spent his first four seasons at Southern Illinois has become such a consistent shooting threat, opponents must defend the perimeter more honestly.

Off the court, Jones has added the kind of joyous, off-beat attitude Purdue was missing.

“You've got to have fun, and I think that's one of the things Lance has really helped us with, Painter said. ”When he's out there and he's got a smile on his face, and you're competing and everybody's having fun, pulling for one another, it just makes it a whole lot easier."

The only real question now is Smith's health. He briefly left Friday's victory over Michigan State after his right knee appeared to buckle, then went 3 of 10 from the field against the Badgers on Saturday. He also briefly left the regular-season finale against Wisconsin with an ankle injury.

But the early exit coupled with a Friday game should give Smith a few extra days to rest before Smith and Loyer hope to produce a different NCAA tourney result.

“I think, naturally, being freshmen, you find things you’ve never been through before, so you don’t know how to handle it possibly,” Gillis said. “Having another year, they look more experienced, they look calmer in situations that last year they might not have been. I think that’s the biggest thing, just having the experience.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness