Purdue and Zach Edey head to the Big Ten Tournament final against Penn State — and have a realistic shot at their 1st national title

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The Big Ten Conference hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament title since Michigan State in 2000, but Purdue looked capable of breaking through early this season, spending several weeks as the nation’s top-ranked team.

If anyone could end the Big Ten drought, the thinking was Matt Painter’s Boilermakers would be the ones to do it.

National Player of the Year favorite Zach Edey has been unstoppable at times, and Purdue has enough complementary perimeter players to pick up the slack when Edey is having a subpar night.

After beating 13th-seeded Ohio State 80-66 on Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, the Boilermakers still have an outside chance at a top seed in the NCAA Tournament and will do no worse than a No. 2 no matter what happens Sunday in the tournament championship game against No. 10 seed Penn State, which continued its tournament run with a 77-73 win over No. 3 Indiana.

“Everybody always talks about getting to a Final Four, getting to an Elite Eight, winning a national championship,” Painter said. “Better win your first game, and then if you’re fortunate enough to do that, better win your second game. There are steps to everything. Anybody can beat you, yet you can’t fear anybody.”

But there’s something about the Boilermakers that invites skepticism.

Some wonder whether Edey’s supporting cast is strong enough or whether Edey’s hook shot is reliable enough for a 7-4 center who looks as if he should be dunking with more regularity. Then there’s that bugaboo of Purdue’s uneven history, including their many tournament disappointments.

Last year they finished the season No. 1 in the polls for the first time in history but lost in the Sweet Sixteen to St. Peter’s, the first team to advance to the Elite Eight as a No. 15 seed.

All those questions won’t be answered until the tournament, when Purdue goes in search of its first national championship. Until then, it’s just a very good team that’s capable of very big things with a very large man in the middle.

But that’s something to think about after Sunday’s Big Ten final against Penn State.

Saturday’s win was a blueprint for the kind of game Purdue must play if it hopes to make history in the NCAAs.

Edey scored 32 points on 12-for-25 shooting and hauled in 14 rebounds as the Boilermakers capitalized on the undersized Buckeyes, who had one available center, and pulled away in the second half. The lack of double-teaming on Edey made his job easier.

“It definitely makes the game pretty simple for me,” Edey said. “I try to score the ball every time I touch it. There was a point halfway through the first half where one of our coaches said ‘I guess it’s one of those days when you’ve got to get 30.’ So I kind of stuck with it.”

Typically Edey is doubled and swarmed every time he touches the ball. He has good mobility and a decent touch that could still use improvement.

”He has a really good nose for the basketball and he’s different than most people his size in the fact he can rebound out of his area, then he can give multiple efforts,” Painter said. “A lot of times guys that are that big, they can make the play, but then they can’t make the next play.

“He just kind of stays with it. Not all the time, because he gets stuck sometimes, especially when he gets sandwiched down there.”

When the Boilermakers get some outside shooting, they can blow teams away in stretches. Guards Braden Smith and Brandon Newman combined for 29 points on 10-for-12 shooting, and Purdue connected on 47% (7-for-15) of its 3-point attempts.

The scrappy, young Buckeyes and their freshman-dominated rotation won’t get an NCAA Tournament invite, but they showed the last four days they’re on par with any Big Ten team outside the state of Indiana.

“Some people got their licks on them this year,” Painter said. “But that’s going to come to a screeching halt. They have a very, very good young nucleus.”

The Boilermakers next face an old friend in Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry, a former assistant under Painter at Purdue.

“I always want to see him win, unless it’s against us, because he helped me so much my freshman year,” Edey said.

Added Painter: “Zach said it best, we root for Micah. Obviously we don’t root for him when they play Purdue, but he’s meant a lot to our program in two different stints as an assistant. He’s grown our program. He’s been a part of it, making us better, and we learned a lot from him.”

The Boilermakers handled Penn State twice during conference play, but after winning five of their final six Big Ten games and pulling off upsets against Illinois, Northwestern and Indiana, the Nittany Lions are riding a wave that no one could have foreseen a month ago.