HONOLULU – Anton Watson has been around one-of-a-kind players at Gonzaga, including Chet Holmgren, 7-foot-1 with guard skills, and expert scorer and entertainer Drew Timme.
Watson has also faced unique players with Purdue center Zach Edey ranking at or near the top of the list.
The 7-4, 300-pound Edey impacts games at both ends of the floor, which was on display when he finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in the Boilermakers’ 84-66 victory over the Zags at the PK85 last November in Portland.
Gonzaga and Purdue collide again Monday in the first round of the Maui Invitational, relocated to SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center due to recovery efforts in Lahaina following the devastating August wildfires.
“We know it’s going to be tough and he’s a different kind of player, something you don’t see in college basketball,” Watson said. “He’s probably going to sit close to the rim. And we’re probably going to have to come with some type of strategy to get him away from the hoop.”
Some of that strategy might borrow from opponents’ playbooks over the last few years in dealing with Timme.
“Just the physicality and just the pace that we play with,” Watson said. “If he’s guarding me or (Graham Ike) we have to get him in ball screens and make him move a lot more. And just physicality and keep him away from the rim, pick him up halfcourt and just kind of bug him really. Annoy him, kind of like what dudes did to Drew last year to try to get him off his game.”
Edey, the reigning player of the year who pulled his name from the NBA draft several hours prior to the deadline on May 31, will tower over 6-10 Ben Gregg and Braden Huff, 6-9 Ike and 6-8 Watson. The Canadian native is strong, making it difficult to dislodge him from the paint. Opponents entering the lane know Edey is usually stationed nearby, poised to swat or deter shots.
Gregg had some success against Edey last year in Portland.
“You don’t know how much of a force Zach Edey is until you’re down low trying to push him out and not let him score, which is almost impossible,” said Gregg, who noted that going against former Zags post JP Batista in practice has been helpful. “But it’s going to be a good challenge for us, playing those top teams early on in the season because come March we’re going to be playing those same teams again.”
Coach Mark Few said it helps that Gonzaga has faced Edey and it helps that the Zags will have six days to prepare after routing Eastern Oregon on Tuesday.
“The interesting thing about last year, we got done (vs. Portland State) and out of that gym at midnight, like a 9:30 start,” Few recalled. “And we played them the next afternoon. It felt like it was a very quick turnaround and Purdue is somebody you need a lot of time to prepare for.
“They’ve got an entity like Edey that’s just so different from what you face. It’s a huge, huge challenge.”
That challenge was made even tougher a year ago with Edey’s supporting cast, many of whom return, including guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith, knocking down 3-pointers and hurting GU with dribble penetration.
Watson and Ike are probable options defensively on Edey at the outset. Huff and Gregg will be next in line when Gonzaga goes to its bench.
As Watson indicated, one key when facing Edey is to try to pry him out of the paint and make him work at the defensive end. The Zags will have to be creative deciding when and from where to double team the big man.
“You can cover down ball side, you can come weak side, go big to big, leave him one-on-one, you can wait until he dribbles, you can sandwich him from both sides,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of opponents’ common tactics. “If you do too much, then obviously if we can pass and catch we’re going to get good shots.
“If we’re getting good shots, whether it’s hit or miss, we feel good about that. If people are getting turnovers or we’re taking bad shots then it’s something you really need to look at. He’s seen about everything. It’s really not in the scheme as much as it is in the (opponents’) effort. Are you committed to fighting and wrestling him for 40 minutes? Are you committing to giving that kind of help and getting back to your man? Teams that might not have the greatest scheme in the world, it’s not that it’s bad, but it’s those guys that are ready to stop him, ready to fight and scrap.”