Busting Brackets

Zach Edey, paying back Matt Painter, and all the coaches that overlooked him

Purdue is heading to the Final Four because Matt Painter believed in his philosophies, but more importantly, because he believed in Zach Edey.
Tennessee v Purdue
Tennessee v Purdue / Gregory Shamus/GettyImages

It’s not easy to overlook a 7-foot-4 high schooler, yet plenty of college basketball coaches weren’t interested in Zach Edey. Matt Painter was and that may have been the best decision that Purdue’s head coach of 19 years ever made.

Now, the reigning National Player of the Year has delivered his head coach to his first career Final Four with a career-high 40-point performance, beating Tennessee 72-66 to win the Midwest Regional Final. All these years later, the most dominant player in college basketball hasn’t forgotten the days when few coaches saw that potential.

“It's amazing. I get to pay (Matt Painter) back. Like there were so many coaches that looked over me, like you could -- name a program, I could name a coach that looked over me. Tennessee, Rick Barnes is a great coach, but he was at our practice, looked over me,” an emboldened Edey said after the game. 

Not often the most outspoken superstar, Edey’s confidence grew throughout the game, uncharacteristically playing to the Purdue-heavy crowd at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit, dropping an F-bomb with Evan Washburn in the postgame, and then calling out the head coach he just beat for not wanting him so many years ago. 

Though he always had the size, Edey was just a three-star high school recruit, the lowest-ranked player of Purdue’s three-man freshman class in 2020, behind Jaden Ivey and Ethan Morton. The former is already in the NBA, though in 2021 couldn’t lead the Boilermakers past the Sweet 16 as the team’s focal point. The latter watched Edey’s 40-point 16 rebound performance from the bench on Sunday. 

Those rankings, don’t mean anything to Matt Painter, and his convictions in team-building are a huge catalyst for Purdue’s Big Ten dominance and now NCAA Tournament success. 

“I thought when we struggled about 10 years ago, everybody talks about doing a better job recruiting, and I thought we had to do a better job evaluating because I would watch Belmont and I would watch Davidson and I'd watch guys at a mid-major level, and the best players at those places can play anywhere,” Painter said. 

Painter doesn’t promise that every player will come to Purdue and be a star, he promises a chance to compete and he values toughness, and above all a will to win. He’s systematic about how he fits a roster around his centerpiece, and for the past two years, that’s been Edey. 

“We evolve towards the strengths of our best players,” Painter said, strengthened in his beliefs by Sunday’s result. “ I think it's a big fallacy in recruiting because everybody wants to play shortstop and lead off, but you've got one shortstop, and if Cal Ripken is there, he's probably not going to get moved.”

Edey was once brought to West Lafayette to fill a role, play left field, and bat fifth or sixth in the order, but as he got better, Edey became the shortstop, became the centerpiece. Then, Painter built the perfect roster to accentuate his immense talent, because he believed in Edey from the start.

“A lot of times, I don't sit there and actually believe in a person as much as I believe in their work,” he said. 

Edey’s work ethic is what took a 7-foot-4 Canadian high schooler who picked up the game late and turned him into the best player in college basketball and potentially a national champion. At the peak of his powers, he’s paying everybody back, those who believed, but especially those who didn’t. 

Edey said defiantly, “It’s kind of been the story of my life, People have doubted me. People looked past me. Can't do that anymore.”

No you can not.

Next. Matt Painter finally has the right recipe to win with his biggest star. Matt Painter finally has the right recipe to win with his biggest star. dark