Edey all business as Boilermakers head north
The Purdue Boilermakers walked off the court at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, this past March in shock, having endured one of the biggest upsets in the history of college basketball.
A season that started with so much promise – 13 straight wins – finished in futile fashion. Five days after beating Penn State to win the Big Ten title and secure a No. 1 seed at the NCAA Tournament, Purdue was sent packing by Fairleigh Dickinson – just the second time in 152 attempts that a 16th seed had knocked off a top seed in the opening round.
It was a devastating loss for a program seeking its first national championship.
“That loss was really tough,” Purdue centre Zach Edey said this week. “I didn’t really speak to anyone that night, didn’t really speak to anyone the next day. Then the following day you kind of open up…It took me a little bit to accept that it happened.”
For Edey, it was a crushing end to a season that was historic in its own right. The Toronto native averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, becoming the first Canadian to claim the Wooden Award as college basketball’s top player, in addition to five other awards for National Player of the Year (Naismith, Associated Press, Oscar Robertson, NABC and Sporting News).
Edey was also a consensus first-team All-American, and won the Pete Newell Big Man of the Year Award and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as college basketball’s best centre.
All that for naught.
“Attacking this season, that’s the important thing now,” said Edey. “That’s the only thing that’s really important.”
This weekend is a homecoming for Edey. The Boilermakers are in Toronto for a meeting with Alabama on Saturday, part of a Hall of Fame Series that also features a matchup between Clemson and TCU.
For Edey, it’s his first competitive game on home soil since moving from Leaside High School in Toronto to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. for the final two years of his high-school career.
“I came into basketball pretty late, so I have a lot of aunts and uncles that have never seen me play,” he said. “Being able to play in front of a lot of them, being able to show them what I can do is gonna be a lot of fun…A lot of my friends haven’t seen me play live in a long, long time.”
Despite the excitement of returning home for a weekend, it’s still a business trip for Edey and Purdue.
“It’s not like I can go out and see my friends, hang out and crash at my mom’s place,” he said. “I’ve gotta still be ready for a game…get my sleep, get my rest.”
Any opportunities to take his teammates out on the town?
“We tried to get a reservation at the CN Tower for a meal, but apparently they don’t do group bookings that big,” Edey joked. “That was the one thing I really wanted to do.”
Saturday is also another chance for Edey to showcase himself to Canadian basketball fans, who got a taste of what he offers at the FIBA World Cup this past summer, when Canada claimed its first-ever medal after rallying to beat the United States in overtime in the bronze medal game.
Edey’s first run-through with the senior national team was mostly an opportunity to get his feet wet – he played in five of Canada’s eight games, scoring 19 points in 23 total minutes – but it was also a chance to acquaint himself with some of the best basketball players in the world.
Canada’s roster had seven players that are currently in the NBA, including Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Knicks swingman RJ Barrett and supervillain Dillon Brooks, who moved from Memphis to Houston this summer.
“Being surrounded with the type of talent I was surrounded with all offseason was really cool,” Edey said of the experience. “You get to see that they’re just human. You watch them on TV and think this, that, and the other thing, but at the end of the day they’re just guys. It was cool to see them work, and all the time they put into their games...It was a learning moment for me.
“Just to go out and win the bronze, the first time in Canadian history to medal in that event…it’s really, really cool. For the rest of my life, I’m gonna be able to say I was on the team that did that, so it’s an honour.”
There’s an air of confidence around Purdue early this season.
It’s a relaxed team, due in no small part to the week it spent in Hawaii last month. Three wins against ranked teams over the course of three days, including a victory over Marquette in the championship game at the Maui Invitational, and the Boilermakers found themselves right where they were for seven weeks last season – ranked No.1 in the AP Top 25.
They’re also returning a roster that looks similar to the one that went 29-6 last year. Each of the six players who started 15 or more games for head coach Matt Painter is back, and the team added transfer guard Lance Jones from Southern Illinois, who’s currently third on the team in scoring.
Edey has even taken a step forward, averaging 23.7 points (third in the NCAA), 11.2 rebounds (fifth) and 2.9 blocks (eighth) in the first nine games.
There’s been one bump in the road – Purdue suffered its first loss last week, a 92-88 defeat against Northwestern, in which Edey had 35 points and 14 rebounds – but overall, it’s a team that’s prepared for the pressure that comes with being a national championship contender.
“We’ve got everyone’s target on our backs,” Edey said. “We’re one of the [most] hunted teams in the country.”
If there’s any concern about another March meltdown, the Boilermakers aren’t making it known.
And there’s a precedent for bouncing back. The only other No.1 seed to fall in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was Virginia, which lost to UMBC in 2018 but recovered to win the first national championship in program history a year later.
A title for Purdue would also be a first, as well as a fitting end to Edey’s college career. But there’s more at stake for the reigning Player of the Year – namely, a spot on an NBA roster next season.
Edey initially entered his name in last year’s draft, but after projecting as a second-round pick, opted to withdraw and return to the Boilermakers for his senior season. It’s a complicated situation for Edey, whose size and low post ability allow him to dominate in college, but are qualities that have become extinct in an NBA that favours tempo, as well as athletic big men who can shoot from deep.
Despite that, Edey isn’t focused on changing. For now, at least.
“That’s not something I’m really concerned about,” Edey insisted.
“I’ll focus on that when the time comes,” he added. “Obviously the NBA is the end goal…I want to be in that league for a long time, but right now the only thing I’m focused on is helping Purdue win.”