For Gonzaga, the Sweet 16 brings with it the tall task of guarding Purdue's Zach Edey -- again

Thu, Mar 28, 2024
NCAAB News (AP)

For Gonzaga, the Sweet 16 brings with it the tall task of guarding Purdue's Zach Edey -- again

DETROIT (AP) - For most teams, facing a 7-foot-4, 300-pound force of nature like Zach Edey is uncharted territory.

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Edey is no mystery to them.

Twice over the past 16 months, the Zags have faced Edey and Purdue, and twice they have lost by double digits.

Gonzaga's third try at toppling the big man comes Friday in the Sweet 16. The winner will face either Creighton or Tennessee with a trip to the Final Four at stake.

"When you're dealing with someone as special as Edey, we've at least experienced it," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said, looking at the bright side. "So we're not trying to describe it to our guys and show them other teams playing against it."

Edey's lines against Gonzaga: 23 points and seven rebounds in the 2022 meeting. Purdue won by 18. Then, at the start of this season at the Maui Invitational, Edey went for 25 and 14 and the Boilermakers won by 10 in a game that both coaches agreed was not their teams' best work.

"It gives you a reference point, but it means very little," Purdue coach Matt Painter said.

Edey is a first-team AP All-American for the second straight year, puncturing the narrative that a true post player no longer has a place in today's game. He's averaging 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks this year, about the same or better than numbers that earned him AP Player of the Year in 2023.

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He has become a more nimble defender, as well, able to move out to the edges and even shut down a guard or two on switches late in possessions.

"He worked his butt off this summer," Purdue guard Braden Smith said.

The improvement is part of the bigger Boilermakers story.

Last March, they became only the second No. 1 seed to be ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It fed into a long-running narrative about this program as one of college basketball's perennial underachievers. Of the eight previous times Purdue has been a top-four seed over Painter's 19 seasons, the Boilermakers have advanced to the Elite Eight only once.

"I think, for us, the most important thing and what we've always tried to do, is be honest with ourselves in evaluation no matter how your season ends, so you can hopefully make those corrections," Painter said. "But you can't correct your team or you can't correct your players unless you correct yourself."

Gonzaga, at the Sweet 16 for the nation-leading ninth straight year, found itself making those corrections mid-season.

The 2023-24 campaign felt like it was slipping away in January when Few, coming off his fourth loss in eight games, started making adjustments, including turning to a bigger lineup. Ben Gregg, a 6-10 center, entered the starting lineup, along with 6-9 Graham Ike and 6-8 Anton Watson. They will all play a part in a full team effort to limit Edey in the post.

Gregg breathed deeply and exhaled when asked for the strategy.

"You got to be smart," said Gregg, who gives up six inches and 70 pounds to Purdue's big man. "It's a very hard thing to do. You try and balance being physical, but not too physical that you're getting foul after foul, which I think happens to a lot of guys when guarding him."

CREIGHTON vs. TENNESSEE

In Friday's later game, second-seeded Tennessee (26-8) and third-seeded Creighton (25-9) are both seeking their first trip to the Final Four.

Both teams are led by players who made the most of the transfer portal.

Dalton Knecht, who is from Henderson, Colorado, spent his first four seasons of college in his home state - first at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, then at Northern Colorado in Greeley.

"There are multiple ways to get to one of the best programs in the nation," Knecht said. "I think it just shows that you don't have to be the highest-rated kid."

Baylor Scheierman, who is from Aurora, Nebraska, left home to take the only Division I offer he had at South Dakota State. He spent three years with the Jackrabbits until deciding to make a move two years ago to join the Bluejays.

It worked out, both for the players and their teams.

Like Edey, the 6-6 Knecht earned a spot on the AP All-America team. Knecht averaged 21-plus points in the regular season and SEC Tournament.

The 6-7 Scheierman, the first Division I men's player in history to have at least 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 3-point baskets, is a third-team All-America player.

"They're both great stories of perseverance and tremendous work ethic," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.

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AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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