For Purdue fans, the script must be getting familiar. Big fat win totals in the regular season, high seeds in March Madness. In the last five tournaments, Purdue has entered as a No. 4 seed or better each time. Impressively consistent. Unfortunately, they've also been impressively consistent in failing to reach the Final Four.
A few of those failings were due to rough draws. They lost to the Virginia team that went on to win it all in 2019, despite the heroic flamethrowing performance of Carsen Edwards. And in 2017 they lost to top-seeded Kansas. But the last two seasons have been pretty rough, double-digit seed upsets. A first round 9 point loss to 13th seeded North Texas in 2021, and a brutal three point loss to tournament Cinderella St. Peter's last year.
Plenty of programs and fans of those programs across the country would trade places with Purdue, but continuously cratering on the biggest stage has gotta take a toll on your fanhood. And blood pressure.
This season, the Boilermakers enter postseason play with a 26-5 overall record. They won the Big Ten regular season title, going 15-5 in conference play, and head coach Matt Painter's team finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 poll.
Purdue started this season on an absolute tear. On February 1, they held a 22-1 record, and were ranked No. 1 overall in seven different weeks between December and February. But over the past few weeks, they've slipped a bit, going 4-4 in their last 8 games.
As we head toward Selection Sunday, the question on every Boilermakers fan's mind is the same: can big man Zach Edey lead Purdue to their first Final Four in over 40 years?
The Man In the Middle
The most important player on Purdue's team, the leading maker of boilers, is 7-foot-4, 305 pound Junior center Zach Edey. No misprints there. The dude is almost the tallest NCAA player ever and weighs as much as an NFL lineman.
He is the most dominant post presence in college basketball, a throwback to centers from a different era. If Edey gets the ball on the lock in single coverage, it is two points. His footwork is smooth enough to dropstep into position for an easy layup, and his hands are good enough to finish at the basket. Frankly, even if he's double covered, he's tall enough that if he gets the ball close enough to the hoop it might not matter.
This season, Edey is averaging almost 22 points and 13 rebounds per game. The big Canadian has improved dramatically since starting at Purdue a few years ago. The question for Purdue and college basketball fans - can a 7-foot-4 center who started playing basketball when he was a sophomore in high school lead a team to a National Championship?
What Wins in March?
The conventional wisdom in college hoops is that you need strong guard play go deep in March. When games get tough and slow and close and late, you need a guard who keeps cool under pressure, can handle the ball, and take and make big shots. The archetypal player here is Kemba Walker, who led an unheralded, unranked UConn team to 11 straight postseason wins and a Big East and national title in 2011. Going into the wayback machine, one remembers Mateen Cleaves from Michigan State, or Steve Blake and Juan Dixon at Maryland.
Purdue relies on a pair of freshmen to helm their backcourt. Braden Smith runs the point for the Boilermakers while Fletcher Loyer plays shooting guard. Loyer can fill it up, and seems unafraid to let it rip from deep. The 6-foot tall Smith was Mr. Indiana in high school, and has earned a reputation as a confident, bordering on cocky playmaker.
For Purdue to make a deep run this month, both of their freshmen will have to step up and hit big shots. While Edey has done a remarkable job at staying out of foul trouble this season, you never know what kind of wacky whistles can impact a game in March.
But the key to Purdue's postseason hopes is the Sporting News' College Basketball Player of the Year. Last March against St. Peter's, Edey was exposed as slow on defense and careless with the ball. He could still score the ball when he got it down low, but that was about it. He committed five turnovers, and had just 2 rebounds to go with 11 points in only 17 minutes.
Edey has dominated all season. For Purdue to make the next step and notch the Final Four appearance Painter and Boilermaker fans have been craving, he'll need to continue that dominance in March. In a sport where little playmakers and ballsy shotmakers thrive in the postseason, Purdue will turn their hopes to the biggest guy on the court.
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