Final Four preview: Big man battle for Purdue, NC State

Purdue’s Zach Edey and NC State’s DJ Burns play the same position, but that’s about the only similarity between each team’s lead option.

Edey’s historic NCAA Tournament has ended any doubt that he’s the best player in college basketball, and Burns has taken the nation by storm with his nimbleness as a powerful post scorer while his team continues its magical March run.

With the Boilermakers two wins away from full redemption and the Wolfpack nearing the status of greatest tourney run ever, Saturday’s contest is sure to bring tons of intrigue.


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How it got here

Record: 33-4 (17-3 in Big Ten)
Pre-tourney AP Poll ranking: 3rd
NCAA Tournament seed: No. 1 in Midwest Region

First round: Purdue 78, No. 16 Grambling State 50
Second round: Purdue 106, No. 8 Utah State 67
Sweet 16: Purdue 80, No. 5 Gonzaga 68
Elite Eight: Purdue 72, No. 2 Tennessee 66

Key stats

3-point percentage: 40.6% (2nd)
Assists per game: 18.9 (2nd)
Adjusted offensive efficiency: 126.4 (2nd)
Offensive rebounding percentage: 38% (2nd)
Strength of schedule: 11.20 (5th)
Defensive free-throw rate: 22.5% (7th)

Star players

Zach Edey

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The discussion no longer revolves around whether Edey is the best player in the country, but rather where he ranks all time in college basketball history. His 40-point, 16-rebound double-double against Tennessee in the Elite Eight was just the fourth time anyone hit those numbers in NCAA Tournament history and the first time in 34 years. The last player to match Edey’s season-long point and rebound numbers was Larry Bird.

NC State has no individual option to guard Edey, but neither do most teams. If Edey can punish the Wolfpack down low in single coverage and find open teammates when multiple defenders come and help in the post, the opposition would need one heck of a shooting performance to take down the 7-foot-4 Canadian.

Braden Smith

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Though no player in the country is more valuable than Edey, there may not be a better complementary piece than Smith. The sophomore point guard’s ability to manage Edey’s touches and where he gets the ball is a major, underrated part of his game. He’s also able to find his own shot and knock it down when called upon.

Smith has dished out at least six dimes in his last eight games, including a Purdue tournament-record 15 in the win over Gonzaga. As a freshman, Smith was one of the biggest reasons for the Boilermakers’ failure against No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson, going 2-of-10 from the field with seven turnovers. This year, he’s matched that giveaway tally across four games.

Lance Jones

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Purdue doesn’t have a true third option, but Jones’ ability on both ends of the floor undoubtedly makes him the most important player aside from Edey and Smith. The Southern Illinois transfer was originally slated to provide complementary minutes, but it was immediately clear that his athleticism and defense brought a new dynamic to the Boilermakers.

Jones will likely be tasked with guarding whichever NC State backcourt member is doing the most damage, and that’s a major advantage for Purdue. The super senior ranks third among all Big Ten guards in defensive Bayesian performance rating, according to EvanMiya. Any outside shooting Jones provides is a bonus, and he’s on a roll in the tournament, making multiple long balls in three of his four appearances.


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Purdue is 17-1 when Fletcher Loyer makes at least four field goals in a game. The sophomore guard is a combined 10-of-28 from the field in defeats. He led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting in conference play at 48.5%, benefitting from open looks provided by Smith’s passing and Edey’s offensive gravity. If Loyer can capitalize on his opportunities, Purdue will be unstoppable.

Reason for concern

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While having a 7-foot-4 behemoth helps when protecting the rim defensively, it can be an issue when needing to guard out in space. Purdue typically does an excellent job at keeping Edey out of difficult spots on defense, but if NC State can use that to its advantage by scoring in the pick-and-roll and off the dribble, it’d go a long way to enabling an upset. Plus, the Boilermakers rank in the bottom 20 nationally in turnover rate defense, meaning the Wolfpack shouldn’t feel pressured with the ball in their hands.

NC State

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How it got here

Record: 26-14 (9-11 in ACC)
Pre-tourney AP Poll ranking: Not ranked
NCAA Tournament seed: No. 11 in South Region

First round: NC State 80, No. 6 Texas Tech 67
Second round: NC State 79, No. 14 Oakland 73 (OT)
Sweet 16: NC State 67, No. 2 Marquette 58
Elite Eight: NC State 76, No. 4 Duke 64

Key stats

Turnover rate: 13.7% (9th)
Adjusted offensive efficiency: 115.1 (40th)
Strength of schedule: 8.54 (41st)
Adjusted defensive efficiency: 99.0 (44th)
Steals per game: 7.2 (96th)

Star players

DJ Burns

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Burns was already a growing legend for his effective game at an unusual size on a Cinderella squad. Then he dropped 29 points on 13-of-19 shooting against in-state rival Duke for NC State’s ninth straight victory facing elimination to become an all-time March Madness icon.

No one’s managed to fully contain Burns’ combination of excellent touch, footwork, and passing in the post. Even when Marquette held him to just four points in the Sweet 16, his seven dimes helped open up the outside shooting for his teammates. That said, he’s yet to face anyone the size of Edey in the tournament. If he can outplay the reigning national Player of the Year down low, his legend will only grow.

DJ Horne

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From one DJ to another, Horne is actually the Wolfpacks’ leading scorer despite all the publicity Burns receives. Horne can be extremely streaky, but he’s excellent at making tough shots when on a roll. With the attention Burns receives in the post and the slow pace NC State has adopted during its run, late jumpers from the super senior guard have become a staple of the offense.

Horne actually went just 5-of-20 from deep during his team’s ACC Tournament run to make the Big Dance in the first place. But he’s turned it up on the biggest stage, going 6-of-13 over his last two tilts. There will be a lot of pressure on NC State’s other scoring options if his shooting success dries up.

Casey Morsell

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Morsell embodies the effective yet unspectacular archetype. On a team that doesn’t possess a ton of scoring punch, the fifth-year senior ranks third with 11.4 points per game. He’s only topped his scoring average once in his last eight games but has played in at least 31 minutes in all bar one of them.

That’s because he’s the team’s best perimeter defender and has remarkably turned the ball over once in his last 266 minutes on the court. He was extremely clutch from the mid-range in the Sweet 16 win over Marquette and played a big role in shutting down Duke’s point guards in the Elite Eight victory.


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Mohamed Diarra was in and out of the rotation in the nonconference portion of the season but is now arguably NC State’s most indispensable player. The versatile 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 32 minutes per game during his team’s nine-game winning streak, way up from his 21.9 average on the year. He’s the perfect swing piece next to Burns’ post play and Horne’s perimeter action, defending any position while scoring on the inside and from the arc. The Wolfpack are 13-1 when he grabs double-digit rebounds, which he’s done in seven of his last eight games.

Reason for concern

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While Diarra has been a revelation on the glass for NC State, that’s still a big worry for the team in this contest. The Wolfpack are just No. 230 nationally in rebounding margin, allowing 24 more boards than they’ve grabbed. Meanwhile, Purdue is second, amassing a plus-430 edge. Diarra will need lots of help from Burns and reserve big man Ben Middlebrooks to try and shore up the glass and avoid giving an elite Boilermakers offense second chances.