Zach Edey and fouls: Opponents left at a loss to solve the challenge of guarding the Purdue big man

GLENDALE, Ariz. – For all the massive stats Purdue All-American Zach Edey has accumulated through the course of the 2024 NCAA Tournament, it’s the small numbers that have some fans obsessed.

Specifically, it’s fans of Utah State, Gonzaga and Tennessee who are furious.

Specifically, it’s about the average of two fouls per game for which he was called against those teams.

They are the Boilermakers’ most recent victims as Purdue surged through March Madness social media complaints after each of those games about the fouls that were called against opposing big men, and those not called against Edey.

Tennessee great and SEC Network analyst Ron Slay notably said Sunday on Twitter, “I don’t like blaming officials but it was a clear message sent in this game. An interior player with one foul is bananas. Free throws were the only difference!”

MORE: Why Zach Edey rarely gets called for fouls

Those who watched from the stands or on television and complained, though, had a different interpretation of what occurred than those involved in the competition. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes acknowledged “We fouled,” following Purdue’s Elite Eight victory, while insisting Edey is a difficult player both to defend and officiate.

Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle said after Purdue defeated his team by 39, “He’s hard to guard without fouling. They’ve shot almost 400 more free throws than their opponents this year for a reason. Like I say, he’s a special player. You have to guard completely different than you have all year.”

This will be the greatest challenge for NC State in Saturday’s national semifinal game against the No. 1 seed Boilers: defending Edey – and, to an extent, his teammates – without endangering the presence of such players as center DJ Burns and power forward Mohamed Diarra.

MORE: DJ Burns has ‘zero’ interest in the NFL

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Edey personally drew 16 personal fouls on Tennessee in the Elite Eight, increasing the average of fouls called against opposing defenders to 11. He has attempted an average of 13.5 free throws in those games. That’s only slightly up from his season average of 11.5 attempts.

There isn’t much doubt part of Edey’s improvement as a senior is wrapped in those numbers. He was The Sporting News Player of the Year in 2023 while averaging seven free throw attempts and 22.3 points. Now he’s up to 25 points per game.

It isn’t as simple, though, as to say he gets more calls than when he had yet to establish himself as the sport’s preeminent star. He’s quicker than a year ago because he worked to develop that aspect of his game, and he’s smarter about how to play because he’s gained four years of experience.

MORE: Against the spread picks for Purdue-NC State, UConn-Alabama

In the Tennessee game, Vols big man Tobe Awaka fouled out after 14 minutes of defending Edey. Gonzaga bigs Graham Ike and Anton Watson both lasted more than 30 minutes, but they also were disqualified.

“I don’t have a doubt about him or Purdue,” Diarra said. “We’re going to face somebody in front of us. We’re going to play the same way we played Duke … I know Purdue is a big team, ranked No. 1, but it doesn’t matter for us because we are a great team, too.”

As Purdue coach Matt Painter views it, it’s essential to call the fouls that are committed whether a player is 7-4 or 6-4.

DECOURCY: Zach Edey helps Purdue end decades of frustration

“The No. 1 thing I say to officials when they talk to me: Now, the rules are the same for everybody, right? That kind of stops and gets them to kind of reset their thinking. He can’t get officiated any differently than someone who is 6-8, 210,” Painter said Thursday. “He just can’t. He’s entitled to position.

“I just want them to call it how they’re calling it down there. Don’t call it any differently. When he starts to get those fouls … it’s because they can’t handle his strength and his size. I don’t think we need to apologize for that. That’s always my fight. Call it the same way.

“So think of it from this standpoint: 6-9, 250 is big. That’s seven inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter. Digest that for a little bit …

“He’ll go and foul them at the other end, they’ll lose their minds – it’s a foul. He could get called for it – but they just passed on three. That’s where the dilemma is.”

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