Busting Brackets

Zach Edey isn’t who NC State should be most worried about in the Final Four

Last year, Purdue's guards were a big weakness in the NCAA Tournament, but now that Braden Smith is a sophomore and playing like an All-American, the Boilermakers may not have one.
Purdue Boilermakers guard Braden Smith (3) and Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey (15)
Purdue Boilermakers guard Braden Smith (3) and Purdue Boilermakers center Zach Edey (15) / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

On Friday, Zach Edey officially became the first back-to-back National Player of the Year since Ralph Sampson won three straight in 1981-83. The last time NC State made it to the Final Four, back in ‘83, the Wolfpack cut down the 7-foot-4 Sampson in the Regional Final. Now, 41 years later, they’ll face the modern-day version with a spot in the national championship game on the line. 

However, Edey might not be the biggest concern for head coach Kevin Keatts. While Purdue's star 7-foot-4 center had 40 points and 16 rebounds in the Elite Eight, his point guard, Braden Smith finished with nine points, seven assists, and seven rebounds for the Boilermakers, but it was Smith who controlled the tempo of the proceedings and just a year removed from an NCAA Tournament meltdown, he's become a metronome.

It's hard to miss Edey's yin and yang tattoo on his left forearm and it's fitting because Smith has become his other half and perfect on-court complement, the key to unlocking his two-year stretch of dominance and Purdue's first Final Four run since 1980.

Edey is frankly impossible to stop in the post, but at least with D.J. Burns’s 6-foot-9 and definitely more than 275-pound frame, Kevin Keatts has a big body that can establish leverage in the paint. Much of Edey’s offense against Tennessee came from post touches, but Matt Painter loves to work a ball-screen action with Edey before simply dumping the ball down inside because the Smith-Edey pick-and-roll is panic-inducing for a defense. 

Smith is a 43.9% three-point shooter on 3.3 attempts a game, so if his defender goes under the screen, Smith can hit the three, if he trails, Smith can drive and might be the best pick-and-roll passer in the country. That's without ever mentioning how much pressure Edey puts on the rim as a roller, allowing easy kick-outs or dump-offs. 

Edey's work in the paint in the story with Purdue, but the Boilermakers are at their most devastating in the pick-and-roll.

The best solution is to hedge as Gonzaga and Tennessee both did in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but that leaves your big in constant recovery mode, desperately sprinting back to the paint where Edey is already setting up shop. Smith and Edey tortured Gonzaga’s Graham Ike in Purdue’s 12-point win over the Zags. Edey scored 27 points, and Smith was the maestro, dishing out 15 assists. 

Here are three perfect examples of how Smith’s shot gravity combined with Edey’s rim pressure manifests on the court. 

Smith finish:

Edey rim-roll:

And when the defense overcommits, Fletcher Loyer is a 40% three-point shooter too: 

Purdue’s typical starter in the front court next to Edey is Trey Kaufman-Renn, who is a below-average shooter. If he’s on the floor, Keatts can potentially hide Burns on him, deploying Mohamed Diarra or Ben Middlebrooks on Edey to defend the pick-and-roll. So, expect Painter to quickly go to redshirt freshman Camden Heide or senior Mason Gillis at the four-spot to force Burns into the ball-screen action. 

Zach Edey is a matchup nightmare and the best player in college basketball, but Braden Smith makes Purdue’s offensive excellence possible. Edey is going to get his season average of 25 points and 12 rebounds, but the key to beating the Boilermakers is to limit the supporting cast. That's what Farleigh Dickinson did in the first round a year ago when Smith turned the ball over seven times.

For it to truly feel like '83, NC State needs to take out the modern version of Ralph Sampson, and when Jimmy V's team beat Virginia, it's not like the Wolfpack shut UVA's superstar down. Sampson had 23 points and 11 rebounds on 8/10 shooting, but Virginia committed 17 turnovers and that was the difference.

Now, taking away Purdue's role-players is impossible because Smith developed into a star. He might be the most improved player in the country, and he can be trusted to exploit Burns’s weaknesses on defense just like he did to Ike and Gonzaga. Burns is America’s favorite player, but Smith and Purdue’s “small-ball” lineups around Edey will play him off the floor. NC State's run has been possible because Burns has produced more offense than he's given up on the other end. Well, he's finally met his match.

When Smith was an untrustworthy freshman, Purdue was vulnerable, but now that he's playing like an All-American the Boilermakers have no weakness. To slow down Edey, you have to first stop Smith and so far this NCAA Tournament, that's been an impossible task.

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