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Q&A: Purdue beat writer discusses Zach Edey’s growth, returning Boilermakers ahead of Gonzaga matchup in Honolulu

Purdue’s Zach Edey leaps for a hookshot over Gonzaga’s Drew Timme on Nov. 25, 2022, at the Moda Center in Portland.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The average college basketball fan might have trouble naming a player on Purdue’s roster that isn’t Zach Edey, but the Boilermakers are much more than the 7-foot-4, 295-pound big man who won a variety of national player of the year honors last season after leading the Big Ten school to a No. 1 team in the NCAA Tournament.

Purdue’s 29-win season obviously wouldn’t have been possible without Edey, but the same probably could have been said about sophomore guard Braden Smith, who was usually the one facilitating things for the Boilermakers. Or Fletcher Loyer, another young guard who started in all 35 games for Purdue while averaging 11 points per game.

Edey’s led Purdue in points and rebounds in all three games this season, but the Boilermakers have another solid cast of players around him – most of them returners from 2022-23.

Smith is averaging 11.7 points, 8.3 assists and 6.0 rebounds, Loyer’s shooting 41.7% from the 3-point line and Southern Illinois transfer is bringing four years of college basketball experience to another Purdue that should contend for a Big Ten title and high NCAA Tournament seed.

To learn more about the second-ranked Boilermakers ahead of Monday’s matchup with 11th-ranked Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational, we reached out to Samuel King, who covers Purdue for the Journal & Courier in West Lafayette, Indiana, for five questions about Matt Painter’s team.

Q: Anymore, a successful outing against Zach Edey seems to mean holding him under 20 points. In your estimation, what’s been the most successful defensive strategy against Purdue’s big man? Success being a relative term, of course.

King: “Last season, when Edey for the first time was relied upon for 30-plus minutes, nobody figured out a way to limit him. Purdue’s offense filters through Edey. The teams that had success against Purdue would either sag to defenders in front of Edey or put two behind him with another either behind or in front, basically forcing Purdue to force the feed inside or shoot 3s. When Purdue struggled from the perimeter in those situations is when it lost games. FDU was probably the most notable example in the NCAA tournament. Edey had 21 points and 15 rebounds, but Purdue shot 5 of 26 from 3.”

Q: We’ve seen stories about the changes Edey’s made to his body, dropping 10 pounds from last season. On the court, where have you seen the most improvement in his game?

King: “Edey hasn’t unleashed all he can do yet. People see him as solely as a back-to-the-basket traditional center. He has a jump shot and can make 3s, but that’s not what Purdue needs him to do. It’s more about what is around Edey than what Edey can do. He’s going to put up numbers every night. The one noticeable difference he’s shown is catching the ball higher from the basket, putting it on the floor and driving to the basket.”

Q: Considering most of the players who were on the floor for last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Fairleigh Dickinson returned to West Lafayette this season, do you get the sense the Boilermakers are using that game as a motivational tool and leaning into comparisons to Virginia’s 2019 national title team?

King: “Purdue seems self-motivated. Obviously the narrative of losing to a 16 seed isn’t going away. Purdue’s team knows that and has owned it. Last year’s team, I believe, overachieved. The Boilermakers won a lot of close games that masked some of their weaknesses, which started to show at the end of the season. Focusing on something that happened in March won’t help Purdue focus on what it can accomplish this season.”

Q: Matt Painter added some scoring punch with Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones. How would you describe his offensive game and how does he complement the returners?

King: “Lance Jones is probably what Purdue hoped to get in sixth-year senior David Jenkins last season. Jenkins had some good performances, but was not the high scorer he’d been at other stops in his career. Jones doesn’t need to be a 20-point scorer. He was brought to Purdue for his defense and athleticism, but does add the possibility of scoring in bunches. Jones can shoot from the outside and is quick getting downhill. He’s shown that already and there likely will be a couple games he pops off for big points.”

Q: Purdue overcame a slow start to beat Gonzaga comfortably last year in the PK85. What will be a few keys for the Boilermakers in Monday’s rematch?

King: “Quite simply, Braden Smith. For all the talk of Zach Edey, the offense is run by Purdue’s sophomore point guard, who really had his breakout performance in last year’s tournament in Portland. Nationally, Smith is undervalued. Internally, he’s probably as important as Zach Edey to Purdue’s success. Through three games, he’s twice come close to a triple-double. Jones handling some of what was Smith’s defensive load last season should help Smith’s offensive game.”