'A generational player': Proud Purdue salutes Edey

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — As he left the floor for the last time in his collegiate career after his team’s 75-60 loss to UConn in the national title game Monday night, Zach Edey stared ahead, walked down the stairs and disappeared into the tunnel.

In the end, Edey couldn’t carry Purdue.

Not that far. Not past a modern legend. Not over a force of nature that beat every opponent in the NCAA tournament by double digits during its second consecutive national title run, this one even more dominant than the last.

Twenty years from now, UConn’s historic effort will still overshadow Edey’s individual achievements. The 7-foot-4, 290-pound center will soon collect his second Wooden Award, a feat that only former Virginia center Ralph Sampson Jr. has matched. The Huskies? They outscored their opponents by 140 points in the NCAA tournament. Their 23.3 point-per-game margin of victory is the greatest mark of all time, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

But Edey, who finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds on Monday while matched against projected lottery pick Donovan Clingan, will leave college as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, despite the loss.

“When you look at his numbers against the greats, there is no question he’s in the conversation,” coach Matt Painter said. “But he’s also the winningest player at Purdue. We won our league in back-to-back years [2023, 2024] by multiple games. It’s the first time that’s happened in the Big Ten since I was in kindergarten. We got to the [national] championship game after having a disappointing loss [in last year’s NCAA tournament]. He got to a Sweet 16. He went to four [NCAA] tournaments. I think that’s always what kind of separates everybody.”

In front of Edey’s locker room at State Farm Stadium after Monday’s game, four granola bar wrappers were scattered around the stall. The various body washes and body sprays the NCAA provided for each participant were arranged neatly overhead and a pair of slippers — size 20 — were on the floor nearby.

As Edey was swarmed by cameras, his teammates discussed the footprint he has left over the past four years of his collegiate career.

“I think he’s the best Purdue player that has worn the uniform,” Boilermakers guard Lance Jones said. “His statistics speak for themselves.”

Long before he finished with 177 points in this season’s NCAA tournament — 29.5 points per game, which is second most all time, according to ESPN Stats & Information research — Edey was searching for an opportunity. A former baseball and hockey player in Canada, he found basketball later in his athletic career, but not an abundance of optimism from collegiate coaches who wondered how he’d fit with their programs.

Painter, however, had coached multiple 7-footers in his career and viewed Edey as a potential star.

“[Painter] is someone who just gave me a chance,” Edey said. “I’ve been trying for four years to pay him back for that. He believed in me when not a lot of people believed in me. He gave me the ball. Not a lot of coaches did that. Not a lot of coaches trusted me in that role.”

That bond helped the Boilermakers make a run to the national title game for just the second time in the program’s history — and a year after an upset loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in last year’s NCAA tournament. Through the fog of that loss and the backlash that followed, Edey was determined to improve from last year’s national player of the year effort. He added more muscle and improved his agility so he could make a greater defensive impact this season. Edey, somehow, got better.

That growth was the team’s ticket to a run to Glendale.

Early in the game, Edey scored on dunks and skyhooks and established that the Boilermakers clearly had the best player in America. But the Huskies had the best team.

That was the difference, as Connecticut swarmed Purdue’s perimeter players — the Boilermakers, who entered Monday’s game as the No. 2 squad in 3-point shooting, finished 1-for-7 from beyond the arc — and spread the load with five players scoring nine points or more.

Still, Edey kept battling.

With 3:25 to play in a game that had long turned into a question about UConn’s margin of victory and not the result, Edey scored his 31st point. He would add six more in the final minutes.

Instead of reflecting on his overall numbers after the game, however, Edey instead emphasized his lapses, such as a period in the second half when he couldn’t find the rim.

“I’ve just got to play better,” he said. “This is one of those games where I can’t go through stretches where I’m not effective. I had a few of those stretches today and that was the game.”

That attitude has made Edey one of the greatest players in college basketball history.

He did not leave Glendale with the national title. Still, the 7-foot-4 superstar left his mark.

Not just on Monday’s game or even Purdue’s program — but also on the history of college basketball.

“He’s a generational player,” Purdue forward Mason Gillis said. “I don’t know if there will ever be another 7-foot-4 guy that dominates the way he does. I think Purdue should not take for granted what they were able to watch for four years. His development was for the fans. For Purdue. He wanted to bring success and raise the Purdue name. He just wanted to win and fight. And that’s what we did.”

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