Sweet 16: Gonzaga faces tall task of guarding Purdue’s Edey again

Mar 29, 2024, 9:19 AM

Gonzaga Purdue Zach Edey...

Zach Edey of Purdue takes a shot as he draws against Graham Ike and Anton Watson of Gonzaga in 2023. (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

DETROIT (AP) — For most teams, facing a 7-foot-4, 300-pound force of nature like Zach Edey is uncharted territory.

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Edey is no mystery to them.

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Twice over the past 16 months, the Zags have faced Edey and Purdue, and twice they have lost by double digits.

Gonzaga’s third try at toppling the big man comes Friday in the Sweet 16. The winner will face either Creighton or Tennessee with a trip to the Final Four at stake.

“When you’re dealing with someone as special as Edey, we’ve at least experienced it,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, looking at the bright side. “So we’re not trying to describe it to our guys and show them other teams playing against it.”

Edey’s lines against Gonzaga: 23 points and seven rebounds in the 2022 meeting. Purdue won by 18. Then, at the start of this season at the Maui Invitational, Edey went for 25 and 14 and the Boilermakers won by 10 in a game that both coaches agreed was not their teams’ best work.

“It gives you a reference point, but it means very little,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.

Edey is a first-team AP All-American for the second straight year, puncturing the narrative that a true post player no longer has a place in today’s game. He’s averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks this year, about the same or better than numbers that earned him AP Player of the Year in 2023.

He has become a more nimble defender, as well, able to move out to the edges and even shut down a guard or two on switches late in possessions.

“He worked his butt off this summer,” Purdue guard Braden Smith said.

The improvement is part of the bigger Boilermakers story.

Last March, they became only the second No. 1 seed to be ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It fed into a long-running narrative about this program as one of college basketball’s perennial underachievers. Of the eight previous times Purdue has been a top-four seed over Painter’s 19 seasons, the Boilermakers have advanced to the Elite Eight only once.

“I think, for us, the most important thing and what we’ve always tried to do, is be honest with ourselves in evaluation no matter how your season ends, so you can hopefully make those corrections,” Painter said. “But you can’t correct your team or you can’t correct your players unless you correct yourself.”

Gonzaga, at the Sweet 16 for the nation-leading ninth straight year, found itself making those corrections mid-season.

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The 2023-24 campaign felt like it was slipping away in January when Few, coming off his fourth loss in eight games, started making adjustments, including turning to a bigger lineup. Ben Gregg, a 6-10 center, entered the starting lineup, along with 6-9 Graham Ike and 6-8 Anton Watson. They will all play a part in a full team effort to limit Edey in the post.

Gregg breathed deeply and exhaled when asked for the strategy.

“You got to be smart,” said Gregg, who gives up six inches and 70 pounds to Purdue’s big man. “It’s a very hard thing to do. You try and balance being physical, but not too physical that you’re getting foul after foul, which I think happens to a lot of guys when guarding him.”

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Sweet 16: Gonzaga faces tall task of guarding Purdue’s Edey again