March Madness conundrum: How to manage Purdue big man Zach Edey?

By | April 4, 2024

The sequence started with Tennessee forward Tobe Awaka draped like a poncho over college basketball’s most immobile big man.

Awaka tried in vain to get someone 7 feet tall and over 300 pounds to position himself to grab an offensive rebound.

As the ball rolled over the rim, Purdue’s Zach Edey freed himself by swinging his giant elbow into Awaka’s jaw. Edey then stood up for a putback and was fouled, infuriating the Tennessee bench and the orange-clad Vols fans, who couldn’t believe the call hadn’t gone against him first.

During the CBS broadcast of last Sunday’s Elite Eight game, play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon said, “Rick Barnes and the Tennessee fans are not happy with the early calls against the Volunteers.” The broadcast then cut to an indignant Barnes shouting from the Tennessee bench, “No way! Not really!”

Edey’s rare combination of size, strength and skill doesn’t just cause problems for opponents who have to defend him. Referees who manage the reigning national player of the year also find it extremely difficult to referee them fairly.

When asked if Edey is the most difficult player to referee in college basketball, former referee Bo Boroski answered without hesitation: “The answer is yes. He’s a unicorn.”

“I can’t think of anyone with that height, that weight and that much talent that we’ve had to mentor,” said Boroski, who retired in 2022 at the top of his game after playing in three straight Final Fours. “When Zach Edey is on offense, it is very difficult to coach him because of his size and athleticism.”

DETROIT, UNITED STATES - 03/31/2024: Zach Edey (R) of the Purdue Boilermakers in action against Tobe Awaka (L) of the Tennessee Volunteers in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Little Caesars Arena.  Final score;  Purdue 72-66 Tennessee.  (Photo by Nicholas Muller/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The legion of overmatched post players tasked with preventing Edey from taking up position wherever he wants have struggled to do so without making mistakes. Edey attempted 424 free throws in Saturday’s Final Four game against NC State, the most by any Division I player in a single season in 54 years and just 20 shy of the all-time record set by Furman’s Frank Selvy in 1954.

Nearly a third of Edey’s 25 points per game came from the charity stripe. So far this season he has taken out a conga line of opposing big men. The player who has made the most mistakes during the 2023-24 season is Tulsa’s PJ Haggerty. Edey has made almost as many foul shots (301) as Haggerty has attempted (309).

“You could probably get five to 10 more fouls per game on defense because he’s so big and so hard to defend,” said John Higgins, who retired from refereeing last year after 29 NCAA Tournaments and nine Final Fours played. “Guys do everything they can to keep him out of the low block or the basket. They probably make more mistakes than we call out.’

Ask anyone at Purdue how Edey is managed, and they insist he needs to shoot even more free throws than he already is. Purdue coach Matt Painter regularly pleads with referees: “Don’t hold it against Edey, because he’s big.”

During a recent radio interview, Painter said that Edey is robbed every game by “guys who shoot him cheap and throw him away and do some other things.” Painter said he had “the last four officials, not one but 10, come by and say, ‘He’s going to get fouled on every play.'”

As rival teams often see it, Edey inflicts more punishment than he can tolerate. Purdue opponents are quick to complain that Edey makes a ticky-tack error on one end of the floor and gets away with a charge on the other end.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins ripped into the referees and was ejected during the final seconds of a late January loss at Purdue in which Edey shot more than twice as many free throws as Collins’ entire team. Tom Izzo echoed Collins’ frustration when asked during a timeout of last month’s Big Ten quarterfinal how his team could better defend Edey.

“I don’t like the way it’s called. How did that happen?’ Izzo responded, before storming off without further explanation.

The cacophony of complaints has only grown louder since the tip-off of the NCAA tournament brought higher stakes and a wider audience. Every whistle or no-call involving Edey comes under intense scrutiny, as he averaged 30 points and 16.2 rebounds while leading Purdue to its first Final Four in 44 years. Opposing fans have derisively dubbed him ‘Foul Ming’.

This no-call on Edey after Purdue’s 80-68 Sweet 16 win over Gonzaga drew a furor from Zags fans on social media:

Tennessee fans were even more outraged that Edey didn’t pick up his first foul until midway through the second half on Sunday, despite plays like these:

The 33-11 free throw differential in favor of Purdue over Tennessee prompted reporters to ask Barnes about the referee several times during his post-game press conference. Barnes wasn’t buying it, calling Edey “a very unique player” and repeatedly describing the game as a “difficult game to play.”

NCAA coordinator Chris Rastatter doesn’t seem to have any problem with the way Edey has performed so far in the tournament. The 11 officials he recommended to work the national semifinals and title game include Ronald Groover, who worked Purdue’s game against Tennessee, and Paul Szelc, who covered the Boilermakers’ matchup with Gonzaga.

Boroski said the biggest mistake referees working one of Edey’s games can make is trying to err on the side of not putting him or the big men defending him in big trouble.

“You just can’t do that,” he said. “If that’s your mentality, you’re in for a long night, and that goes for both teams.”

The mentality he prefers is the same one he preaches before every game: only make mistakes when there is “a high degree of certainty that they are correct.”

“It’s not a ‘let them play’ approach,” Boroski said, “but it’s a ‘you better be right’ approach.”

Otherwise, with a Final Four stage and the criticism Edey is attracting, the reaction will certainly be swift.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *