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Mike Lopresti | | December 8, 2022

Too tall a task: Trying to guard Purdue's Zach Edey, the big man among big men

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — On the phone was an assistant coach staring at a mountain in front of him. Figuratively, anyway.

Tom Parrotta is one of Speedy Claxton’s aides at Hofstra, and his assignment this week was putting together the scouting report on the Pride’s Wednesday opponent. Which meant Purdue. Which meant Zach Edey, the 7-foot-4 Toronto Tower, bad news for anyone who has gotten in his way lately. The Big Ten has been playing basketball since 1906 and has never seen anyone taller than Zach Edey.

“I think what jumps out at you is his size even on film,” Parrotta said, just before Hofstra left for the airport and the flight to Purdue. “People have said he’s that much bigger in person. But you can already tell. The tough thing is trying to simulate that in practice.

“He’s been doing this to Gonzaga and Duke and Minnesota and really, really big people out there, so what do you do? They’ve all had their struggles. There really isn’t anyone like him in college basketball.”

Indeed, what do you do, or at least try, against the most fearsome weapon in the college game at the moment? We’ll get to Hofstra’s plans in a minute, but first, a reminder of why anyone having to scout the center for Purdue has some scary film to watch. Wherever the 9-0 Boilermakers have gone this season, Edey has left behind size-20 footprints, and opponents in near awe.

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Purdue men's basketball center Zach Edey

Duke coach Jon Scheyer after Edey’s 21 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in 32 minutes: “They have the most unique player in the country, probably. He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme after Edey produced 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks when they met: “He’s a moose. He just camps out down there. He’s strong, he knows how to use his body, he knows how to get his hook and it’s kind of just like, you have to put your hands up and hope he misses.”

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, after Edey’s 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting: “I’ve got to say that we did a pretty good job, except on the big fella and everyone’s had trouble with him. He’s a different kind of guy.”

Minnesota coach Ben Johnson, after Edey’s 31 points and 22 rebounds, which were one more than the entire Gophers team: “I don’t think there’s a team in the country that has an answer for him.”

The Edey legend grows and grows, just like he did as a kid back in Toronto. By the third grade he was already pushing 5-foot-9, and would never again be in a classroom with a teacher taller than him.

That’s one item of the Edey phenomenon; his sheer size. Timme and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe were the most renowned big players coming into college basketball this season. Timme gives up six inches to Edey, Tshiebwe seven. 

Also, his unique road traveled to Purdue. He’s been playing the game for basically only six years. Before that, he was a baseball pitcher and a hockey player. There’s a photo of the 2011-12 Toronto Penguins youth hockey team, and in the front row on one knee but still towering over his teammates is nine-year-old Zach Edey, defenseman. After moving to IMG Academy in Florida to develop his fledgling basketball game, he came out of high school ranked in the 400s on recruiting lists. Not many people expected great things.

And now there are his staggering numbers, starting to pile Edey-high: His eight consecutive games with 20-plus points matches the longest streak for a seven-footer in 25 years... he has one more foul this season than blocked shots... he is averaging 23.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and shooting more than 60 percent... in the past two games he has 54 points and 40 rebounds in 61 minutes, which would translate to 35.4 points and 26.2 rebounds over 40 minutes... the 40 rebounds in two games are as many as opponents Minnesota and Hofstra had combined... his 31-point, 22-rebound game against Minnesota was something no Purdue player had done in 60 years... his 28.48 career scoring average per 40 minutes is behind only David Robinson and just ahead of Shaquille O’Neal among all-time big men. The last noted 7-foot-4 great, Virginia’s Ralph Sampson, was at 21.9, and he was a three-time national player of the year.

The sureness of Edey’s hands and the deftness of his footwork have made him even a mightier force. He has said the credit for a lot of that goes back to baseball and hockey. The journey to 2023 national player of the year candidacy started on the junior ice rinks of Canada.

So, what to do about this guy if Purdue’s next on the schedule? Back to Hofstra, and one night of the hit Zach Edey show.

The Pride had tried a number of things in practice to prepare.  “We were going to put one of our guys on one of our other guy’s shoulders and just put a big XXX shirt on him,” Parrotta said.

He was kidding. Wasn’t he?

“We have to do some things from a creative standpoint because you can’t — meaning Hofstra or anybody else for that matter — guard that dude one-on-one. You really have to guard him as a team. Every time he catches the basketball there has to be one, two, three guys around him at all times. I guess the thing you hope for is that you get the ball out of his hands, providing that he doesn’t get it too deep. I kept finding myself saying to our guys, 'Listen, this is easier said than done.' I get it.

“It might be one out of every five times we accomplish what we set out to do, just because he presents so many problems.”

There’s more.

“The thing is, it’s not like the four guys around him are not really good players, too," Parrotta said. "So that poses a problem, too. We’re talking about, what can we afford to give up here? Obviously, he just can’t catch it three feet from the basket, we know that, so we’re going to try to do some things. The second thing is, we’re going to try to force him to throw the basketball across the court. And then we’re going to try to guard personnel as best we can from a shooting standpoint. And then the last facet of the whole thing is how the hell do we rebound with them?

“They have a guy that they can throw to at any time. That’s their fallback plan. If stuff goes sideways, just throw it in and see what happens. You can’t hack him because he’s shooting a high percentage from the free throw line.”

In other words, it was a very, uh, tall order. But also a fascinating challenge for an opponent.

 “I don’t think you play college basketball for any other reason,” Parrotta said. “We’re not like, 'Oh my God, what have we gotten ourselves into?' That’s not the case. You look at this as an opportunity. I went back today (to watch more film) and the first slide was him, right in the middle in all his glory, with the other guys around him. Everything revolves around this guy.

“You start to lay it out to the guys and say, let’s look at some of his games he’s had really, really big nights. Let’s not let him duplicate this. Let’s look at a game where maybe he didn’t shoot 15-for-18. Let’s try to keep him to a season-low. Let’s not let him get seven or eight dunks. Those are challenges and incremental things we can do throughout the night to take a swing at this.”

Hofstra is no stranger to big fish. The Pride beat Arkansas last season, lost to Maryland by two and took Houston to overtime. “They were similar to the size and strength and things like that, but nothing like the big fella,” Parrotta said. “And he seems like a really nice kid, too.”

Twenty-seven hours later, the 6-3 Pride are on the floor of Mackey Arena. While they do pre-game layups at one end, Purdue huddles up in a circle at the other. Edey stands out like the Empire State Building, which is not that far from Hofstra’s Long Island campus.

Zach Edey towering over his Purdue teammates

When the game starts, the tallest Hofstra player on the floor is eight inches shorter than Edey. Missing is the Pride's leading scorer, guard Aaron Estrada, out with an ankle injury. This game was going to be hard enough without that. First time Edey gets the ball, three Hofstra players converge on him and he misses. Next time, single coverage. Dunk. Next time, follow-up dunk over two defenders. His first hook is taken amid four Pride players, off the rim. Later, a lob pass to him at the rim. No stopping that.

And so it goes. Hofstra bothers what shots it can with double and triple teams and Edey makes only one hook all night. There is nothing to do about the rebounds Edey grabs in his own private stratosphere. He has a double-double by halftime and finishes with 23 points — mostly on dunks — and 18 rebounds in an 85-66 win. The carnage he leads on the boards is all over the box score: Not one Hofstra player gets an individual offensive rebound and the gap in second-chance points is 19-0, the exact difference as the final score. The supporting cast Parrotta warned about added 10 3-pointers and committed only nine turnovers. If the Boilermakers keep doing that, they will be a very tough out in the NCAA tournament. Because come March, Edey will still be 7-4. When he gets tired or has a bad shooting night, he's still 7-4.

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Standing in a Mackey Arena hallway, Claxton reviews what his guys had been up against.

“Best big man in the country. He commands a lot of attention and rightfully so because if he catches it deep, it’s two points,” Claxton says. “ You’ve got no choice but to double-team him. You’ve got to provide so much attention to him and that freed up their shooters.

“My guys battled. They hung in there and they fought. I’m proud of my guys, I really am.”

In Purdue’s post-game media conference, Edey analyzes another night of an opponent throwing anything it has at him. Yeah, he senses the increased attention in the court.

“I think it just comes down to teams really scouting me hard. This year I’m kind of the No. 1 option so teams are going to focus their gameplan around me. Some teams choose to leave me one-on-one, some teams choose to double. We’ll find that out pretty early and play off that.”

His teammates appreciate the dilemma opponents face.

“I’m sure it’s not fun. I don’t have fun guarding him in practice,” says 6-foot-10 Caleb Furst, the big man on most teams, but six inches shorter than his fellow Boilermaker post. “I can’t imagine what they go through.”

They also understand the opportunities that Edey provides them.

“Obviously we’re going to get Z the ball when we can,” says guard Braden Smith. “He’s going to make plays and he’s going to have those big nights, that’s what we want.

“So he’s doing his thing, and when he can’t do his thing he finds us.”

Matt Painter hears what his coaching opponents say, how they marvel at the uniqueness of what Edey can bring and the difficulty of getting ready to face him.

“They can’t take somebody on their team and really practice for two or three days and get a feel for it,” Painter says. "I compare it to a great pressing team. You take a great pressing team, and try to work on that press in your practice... so you’ll put six or seven guys out there and you go do crazy stuff because you’re trying to get it to where it’s the same as the game, but it’s never the same as the game.

“There’s no way that they can get in practice and really know what’s coming. Guys his size don’t go after every rebound. He goes after every rebound. He gives a great effort. He’s not just one of those big dudes that sits there and scores because he’s big. He’s got a good skill level and he’s got a good motor.

“I thought their two big guys really played hard. I thought they really gave a great effort in battling and were on him. Sometimes guys give in to him. With that being said, he had 23 and 18.”

Two Edey numbers Painter always checks first on the box score: Rebounds and turnovers. Edey has had 17 of the latter for the season — not bad since he touches the ball so often. An important part of the Boilermaker offense is that he both find the open men and effectively passes to them when the defenses come collapsing in.

“If he doesn’t turn it over and he dominates the glass he’s put you in a really good position,” Painter says.  “We’re just trying to utilize him to the best of our abilities but also balance things. People say you just can’t rely on him, Well, if he can catch the basketball down there it makes sense for us to deliver it.”

Another night, another Purdue win, another heaping helping of Zach Edey, former hockey player. Somewhere out there is another coach of a future opponent, gazing at a film and wondering one of college basketball most difficult current questions.

What do we do against this guy?

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