Utah State faces towering challenge in Edey when it meets Purdue in second round of March Madness

Sat, Mar 23, 2024

Utah State faces towering challenge in Edey when it meets Purdue in second round of March Madness

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Utah State center Isaac Johnson already senses what he'll be facing Sunday against Zach Edey.

He got a glimpse of it in high school when he faced a higher-ranked recruit, 7-foot-4 Matt Van Komen, and he got an up-close look at Edey on Friday night while the Aggies were waiting to play after Edey's dominant performance powered Purdue to a 78-50 win over Grambling State.

Johnson understands Van Komen is no comparison to Edey, and that this second-round game in Indianapolis is not just another game. No. 8 seed Utah State is one win away from making its first Sweet 16 since 1970, and Johnson, the third-year player who started at Oregon, suddenly finds himself becoming a center of attention.

"Pretty much all my energy just went into defense. It was not my best offensive game of the year because all of my energy went into defense," Johnson said Saturday as he recalled that prep contest. "If that's what it takes again, we have a team of guys who can step up. So we'll just do our best."

Defending Edey has been a tricky task for anyone, regardless of size, over the last two seasons.

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Last year's national player of the year had several reasons for returning this year - winning a national championship, fine-tuning his overall game and improving his NBA draft stock.

Edey's encore proved even better than his breakthrough season.

He led the nation in scoring (24.6 points per game), was second in rebounding (12.0) and tied for 10th in total blocks (76). The Canadian won a second straight Big Ten Player of the Year award, joined the shorter list of two-time All-Americans, won a second straight Big Ten regular-season crown and broke the school's long-standing records for scoring (2,369) and rebounding (1,255).

He is the frontrunner to win national player of the year award. The last player to win it in back-to-back seasons was Ralph Sampson of Virginia, who did it three times from 1981-83.

With No. 1 seed Purdue (30-4) one win away from breaking the school's single-season mark for victories and a trip to Detroit for next weekend's Midwest Region semifinals, Edey looks and sounds like a man on a mission.

He needed only 30 minutes to produce 30 points, 21 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in the first round. He became the first player with a 30-point, 20-rebound performance in the NCAA Tournament since Joe Smith of Maryland in 1995.

"I think I kind of attack most people kind of the same way," Edey said. "I've gone against size plenty of times in my career. We have Will Berg on our team, he's 7-foot, I practice against him every day, so it's not like I haven't seen size before. I kind of know how to deal with it and how to attack it."

Edey's experience, as well as his size and talent, certainly makes slowing him down a real challenge.

The 7-foot, 227-pound Johnson already has two disadvantages - he's 4 inches shorter and 73 pounds lighter than Edey. So the Aggies probably won't rely exclusively on Johnson for defense.

They're more likely to use a combination of Johnson, 6-11, 220-pound forward Kalifa Sakho and 6-8, 250-pound Great Osobor, the Mountain West Player of the Year, to throw extra defenders at Edey, something Grambling avoided.

The danger is Edey also is a proficient passer, and Purdue has Division I's second-best 3-point shooting team at 40.7%.

That's the big challenge for Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle, finding a way to effectively defend Edey without giving up 3s. And he had a short period to implement a plan after Friday night's 84-70 victory over ninth-seeded TCU.

"Sometimes you can't (stop him)," Johnson said. "What we can do is stop the rest of the team from doing some of the things they do. I guess you can stop them down low, but there's not much you can do when it's up high."

Nobody understands the problems Edey poses better than 6-9, 230-pound Trey Kaufman-Renn, who has the last spent three years working against the star center in practice. He didn't say how many times he fouled Edey, how he fared or whether he thought the Aggies' long-range shooters could successfully lure Edey away from the basket Sunday.

But one thing Kaufman-Renn does know is it's not easy to dislodge Purdue's biggest star.

"It doesn't work," Kaufman-Renn said when asked about wrestling with Edey for position. "You can't (move him). That's the short answer. You've got to play differently."


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