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Purdue‘s Zach Edey is simply put – one of one.

There is no one as big and no one as dominant in college basketball as the Bolliermakers’ 7-foot-4, 300-pound center, who is well on his way to being named the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. In doing so, Edey will become the first player since former Virginia center Ralph Sampson to receive the honor multiple times. In fact, FOX Sports spoke with Sampson — who is also 7-4 — about the Naismith award, his place in college basketball history and the role of big men in the modern game.

While Edey’s college hoops career is far from over – the Boilermakers will head to Minneapolis for the Big Ten Tournament next week and the NCAA Tournament after that – this weekend will mark the final time he steps foot on the floor at Mackey Arena as a player when Purdue takes on Wisconsin at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX (watch on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

Edey announced last month that he will not return to the Boilermakers for his final year of collegiate eligibility and will instead declare for the 2024 NBA Draft at the end of the current season. He is a senior but had an extra year of eligibility due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 pandemic-caused waiver for all players during the 2020-21 academic year.

With that said, we called upon our college basketball experts, John Fanta and Michael Cohen, to break down Edey’s college career and discuss a number of topics surrounding the dominant big man, including his legacy, his NBA ceiling and the key for him and the Boilermakers to make a deep run in this year’s Big Dance.

Zach Edey is one of the most dominant big men in college basketball history, but how much of his legacy will be defined by what Purdue is able to accomplish in this year’s NCAA Tournament?

John Fanta: Zach Edey is a generational college basketball player, producing numbers that fall into a category that is truly hard to fully put into perspective.

These numbers from the terrific analytics site, EvanMiya.com, tell part of the story about Edey’s dominance, with him being far and away the most successful college player to step on the hardwood listed at 7-foot-3 or taller since 2011. We have not seen a back-to-back national player of the year winner since Ralph Sampson achieved the feat in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Think about it: For over 40 years, nobody in the country has gone back-to-back for the sport’s top honor. So, yes, what Edey is doing at the college level is in fact extraordinary. 

All of this being said, Sampson won an NIT championship, reached two Elite Eights and made a Final Four. The man before him to achieve consecutive player of the year honors, Bill Walton, powered UCLA to two straight perfect seasons and national titles.

I’ll be honest: Edey haters are annoying to me. He is averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game while going 63% from the floor. If you want to argue he’s merely a stat-sheet-stuffer, his team has gone 55-9 over the last two seasons.

The most unfortunate part is two of those losses have come to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter’s. Look, if the Boilers make a first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament this year, it’s going to be the elephant in the room when we talk about Edey and that he could never break through when it mattered most.

Purdue’s situation also encapsulates both the joy and the heartbreak of March Madness. It’s not one six-game tournament. You’re playing six one-game tournaments and every contest is its own entity. But for Edey’s sake, he’s been too dominant to have a black cloud hanging over him, and frankly, that would be the unfortunate reality if Purdue can’t go on a run this time. I think there’s even more pressure on Matt Painter than there is for Edey because, at a certain point, the head coach has to break down that wall. Painter will be back next season, and if Purdue does make an early exit, he would enter next season with questions about whether he’ll ever make that elusive Final Four, because if not this year, then when? Edey can still collect his player of the year awards, his NIL dollars and move on to getting drafted. But yes, for the sake of his legacy, he can enter Mount Rushmore territory with a national championship. Anything short of a Final Four will allow those narratives that he could never deliver in March to hang with him forever, whether we like that or not. 

Michael Cohen: With Edey on the cusp of winning his second consecutive Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award, he’s about to gain entry into one of the sport’s most exclusive clubs as a multi-time winner. Aside from Edey, who won the award after averaging 22.3 points and 12.9 rebounds per game in 2022-23, the only other players to have received the honor multiple times are former Virginia center Ralph Sampson (1981, 1982, 1983) and former UCLA center Bill Walton (1972, 1973, 1974). Sampson led Virginia to an NIT Championship as a freshman before reaching a Final Four, a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight during his final three seasons with the Cavaliers. Walton, meanwhile, won a pair of national championships under legendary coach John Wooden and was part of back-to-back undefeated seasons, identical 30-0 records in both 1971-72 and 1972-73. 

So where does that leave Edey? It’s all but impossible to quibble with Edey’s statistical greatness after another season in which he’s averaging 24.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in guiding the Boilermakers toward a second consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But when it comes to postseason success, there’s almost none to speak of since Edey entered the starting lineup three years ago. Purdue suffered an unfathomable Sweet 16 loss to 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in 2021-22 with Edey surrounded by eventual lottery pick Jaden Ivey and high-level post player Trevion Williams. Then the Boilermakers became just the second No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed when they were upended by Fairleigh Dickinson in last year’s opening round. When compared to his future Naismith brethren like Sampson and Walton, both of whom enjoyed far more postseason success than Edey has thus far, there’s pressure on Purdue’s big man to deliver in his final chance with the Boilermakers. 

What is the key for Zach Edey and Purdue to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament?

Michael: Consistent perimeter shooting from Edey’s supporting cast. Consider what happened to Purdue during each of its high-profile losses in the NCAA Tournament the last two seasons: 

Against Saint Peter’s, which had never advanced beyond the first round and marched all the way to the Elite Eight, the Boilermakers shot 5-for-21 from beyond the arc. Ivey shot 1-for-6, Mason Gillis shot 0-for-3, Eric Hunter Jr. shot 0-for-3. Sasha Stefanovic (3-for-7) was the only player who made more than one 3-pointer for a team that finished the season fifth in the country in 3-point field goal percentage at 38.4%. 

One year later, the story was more of the same against Fairleigh Dickinson: Purdue shot 5-for-26 from beyond the arc in a crushing loss that placed head coach Matt Painter and his team alongside Virginia in the ring of shame. Gillis was 1-for-7, Braden Smith was 1-for-6, Ethan Morton and David Jenkins Jr. were both 0-for-2. Once again, there was only one Boilermaker who connected on multiple 3-pointers in true freshman Fletcher Loyer, who buried three of his eight attempts. 

As of Sunday evening, this year’s Purdue team ranked second in the country in 3-point field goal percentage at 40.5%, trailing only Kentucky. The Boilermakers will need their perimeter shooters to cash in as opponents dedicate more and more resources to stopping Edey in the low post. 

John: As Michael mentions, Purdue is second in the country in 3-point field goal percentage. Yes, you could have an off-day from 3-point range and that could lead to your demise. But the Boilermakers have been about as consistent from downtown as one could ask for to this point, with their latest performance being a 9-for-16 output in Tuesday’s 77-71 win over Illinois in which Smith drilled a cold-blooded dagger with 18 seconds left.

Loyer, Smith and Mason Gillis are all shooting better than 40% from deep on the year with Lance Jones at a solid 36% from downtown. 

For me, the key for the Boilermakers to get to Arizona in April is limiting turnovers. How Smith, Loyer, Jones & Co. – even Edey for that matter – handle defenses that swarm the ball and like to create fullcourt pressure will determine if Purdue makes a deep run. Why do I say this? Well, look at the common theme in the three losses the Boilermakers have had. They combined for 45 turnovers in those three games, giving it up at least 14 times to Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State in those defeats. 

Forcing turnovers isn’t how Purdue goes about its business. In fact, the Boilers only force 9.8 per game, while committing 11.4 on average. With that in mind, if their guards are forced into errors, it’s not a strength for them to be able to make up for those on the defensive end of the floor. It’s not to say they’re a bad defensive team, because they aren’t (21st in KenPom), but the Boilers, when they’ve shown their vulnerabilities, have struggled with ball security. 

What do you view as Zach Edey’s ceiling in the NBA?

John: I actually believe that Edey has significantly boosted his draft stock this season because he’s shown a improvement in his mobility, his defensive versatility and his overall feel for the game. Look, the perimeter shot is always going to be the flawed area and, as a result, that limits his overall upside in the league, but I do think he’s a first round pick. Why? In a draft class with a lot of question marks across the board, you know with Edey that you’re getting a 21-year-old who’s developed every year as a prospect, can cover a lot of ground defensively and protect the rim, and is a unicorn from a size perspective who is capable of drawing fouls while shooting 72% from the free throw line. 

I think Edey is going to be a reserve NBA big man who can create some mismatches and just an overall different look for a team that’s looking to add that type of wrinkle to their rotation. According to CBB Analytics, Edey has drawn close to 10 floor fouls per 100 possessions this season, which is the most among all players in the country. I understand wholeheartedly the notion that the modern day NBA has shifted to everybody having to shoot the 3-ball, but sometimes teams do zig when everybody else is zagging, and if any traditional post player could be worth the shot, Edey is as great of a candidate as any. For that reason, I believe he can be a solid reserve for an NBA team. 

Michael: It’s a very difficult question considering there’s nobody in the NBA right now who looks like Edey (7-foot-4, 300 pounds) or plays like Edey (one career 3-pointer). There aren’t many ready-made comparisons for such a plodding and polished big man who plays almost exclusively with his back to the basket. Edey is more reminiscent of a bygone era than he is the current wave of positionless basketball that renders most traditional centers obsolete. If the 2024 NBA Draft class weren’t so weak, there’s little chance Edey would crack the first round, though that’s where he is currently slotted in various mock drafts. It’s unclear exactly how his skill set will translate to the next level, which makes projecting his future — and how much draft capital to spend on Edey — even harder. 

But perhaps there’s a role for him as a mismatch player or a second-unit reserve, someone who can influence the game in spurts even if his size and lack of mobility prevent Edey from ever playing starters’ minutes. It’s not hard to picture him scoring two or three post-ups in a row at one end and blocking a shot or two at the other. How long he’s able to remain on the floor will likely hinge on whether he can develop a 3-point shot and defend the pick and roll. 

Zach Edey is the most dominant player in college basketball since ________?

Michael: This is another really tough question to answer because so few people have combined the kind of physical dominance Edey exudes with the statistical output he musters on a nightly basis. And those who have — or who’ve at least come close depending on their body types — generally didn’t stick around the college game long enough to match Edey’s multi-season reign atop the sport. Had Edey arrived at Purdue in a different decade, there’s a good chance he would have been the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft long before spending four full years with the Boilermakers. 

One potential choice here is former Texas forward Kevin Durant, whose only season with the Longhorns netted him the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year after averaging 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks as a true freshman. He shot 47.3% from the field, 40.4% from 3-point range and 81.6% from the free-throw line for a team that finished 25-10 and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds — though he’s since grown taller — Durant mesmerized the college basketball world by harnessing the skills of a high-level guard in the body of a gangly center. He scored 20 points in his collegiate debut and went on to reach double figures in every game he played, opening his career with seven consecutive 20-point games. He scored at least 30 points in better than 31% of his games and set a career-high of 37 on four separate occasions. Durant scored however and whenever he wanted in one of the most memorable freshman seasons in NCAA history. He left Texas after one year and became the No. 2 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. 

John: I went ahead and took a different approach with this one, giving thought to a player who was incredibly consistent for a three or four-year career while being the clear face of the sport. Before Oscar Tshiebwe returned as the reigning National Player of the Year for the 2022-23 season at Kentucky, the last player to elect to come back to college is my selection for this exercise: 

Tyler Hansbrough. 

Fittingly, the North Carolina legend who was a four-year player for Roy Williams from 2005-09, won the national Player of the Year award in his junior year, then followed that up by going out with a national championship alongside Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Hansbrough’s level of dominance was greater than Edey’s, with the 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward earning first-team All-America honors in his final three years of college and second-team All-America honors as a freshman. Only Christian Laettner, Elvin Hayes and Danny Manning scored more points than him combined in NCAA Tournament games, with Hansbrough finishing with 325 in the Dig Dance and becoming the only player in ACC history to lead his team in scoring and rebounding throughout all four seasons. 

It’s hard to find a comparison for Hansbrough’s dominance for four consecutive years, but I think that Edey’s two-year run in West Lafayette is the closest thing that we’ve seen to the Tar Heels great. In Hansbrough’s final two years, he averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds per game, followed by 21 and 9. Edey posted 22 and 13 per game, followed by 24 and 12 this season. Additionally, Hansbrough’s Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament three straight years. Edey and the Boilers should be the No. 1 overall seed this season, with back-to-back campaigns as a top seed. 

Zach Edey and the Boilermakers have shown they didn’t have much trouble running through the Big Ten Conference, holding a 16-3 record in conference play heading into Sunday’s showdown with Wisconsin. Which teams could give Edey and the Boilermakers problems in the Big Dance?

John: Well, the matchup that I think we’d all love to see is Donovan Clingan of UConn meeting Edey because it feels like a college basketball edition of Godzilla versus King Kong. While Clingan’s offensive numbers are not necessarily gaudy at 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, the way that he protects the rim with 2.2 blocks per contest – and altering several other shots – is scary good. Clingan’s presence is why UConn ranks 16th in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency. While I do not think Houston would be able to match up particularly strong with Edey, I’d be fascinated to see the nation’s best defense go up against Purdue’s guards to see if Jamal Shead and L.J. Cryer’s ability to pressure the ball could throw the Boilers off on the perimeter. Some other submissions of teams we haven’t seen Purdue play: Creighton. Because Ryan Kalkbrenner is already a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year selection and could notch a third honor next week. Between his presence and the way Creighton can space the floor and match up with the Boilers’ guards, I don’t mind that matchup for Greg McDermott’s team one bit. I also would sign right up for another Hunter Dickinson vs. Zach Edey matchup. If the Jayhawks have a healthy Kevin McCullar Jr. and are able to knock down enough perimeter shots (Nick Timberlake had 18 points on 6-of-7 FG against Kansas State in the win Wednesday), Bill Self’s group can be dangerous. 

From a purely contrasting styles standpoint, I’d love to see Kentucky against Purdue because Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard are so explosive and Antonio Reeves would be the best perimeter bucket-getter on the floor in that game. But UK can’t stop Edey inside. They’re just not consistent enough there. One wild card that I’d throw out is also from the SEC: Florida. The Gators rank 29th in the country in tempo with dynamic guards Walter Clayton Jr., Zyon Pullin and Will Richard charging the perimeter, and they have enough size to at least give a fight. 

The team that beats Purdue is one that’s going to be able to cause problems defensively for the Boilers’ guards and hold them down from finding a rhythm from beyond the arc. If a team had a formula to contain Edey, we wouldn’t see his video game numbers. But, 3-pointers are … worth more than Edey’s paint touches. That’s why I’m most concerned about the Boilers getting hot from deep if I’m the opponent, because if that happens, start planning your spring vacation. 

Zach Edey sinks a tough and-1 finish to extend Purdue’s lead over Michigan State

Michael: One way to conceptualize this question is to think about teams whose big men have the requisite size to match up with Edey defensively. Nobody in college basketball has another 7-4, 300-pound behemoth, but there are a handful of high-level teams with 7-footers who might be capable of deterring Edey’s path — for a while, anyway. Some of the programs that fit this mold include UConn with Donovan Clingan, Creighton with Ryan Kalkbrenner, North Carolina with Armando Bacot, Arizona with Oumar Ballo and Kansas with Hunter Dickinson. All of those centers have enough height and weight to make Edey work at both ends of the floor. And while Edey only commits 2.4 fouls per 40 minutes this season, according to KenPom, opponents who aren’t afraid of challenging him at the rim could theoretically get the Purdue star in foul trouble. 

Another way to think about this question is to envision teams whose big men have such unique skill sets that it might be difficult for Edey to influence the game defensively. In other words, centers who spend most of their time away from the basket and could drag Edey toward the perimeter. Some of the programs that fit this mold include Marquette with Oso Ighodaro, Duke with Kyle Filipowski and Illinois with Coleman Hawkins. Pulling Edey toward parts of the floor where he is less impactful as a shot blocker and shot deterrer might be an effective strategy against the Boilermakers.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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