College Basketball
Edey, Clingan and Burns, Oh My! Big men set to own the spotlight at Final Four
College Basketball

Edey, Clingan and Burns, Oh My! Big men set to own the spotlight at Final Four

Updated Apr. 5, 2024 1:48 p.m. ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Zach Edey sat down inside the Purdue locker room on Thursday afternoon at State Farm Stadium and didn't hesitate when asked for his thoughts on this year's Final Four. 

"I think this shows the big man is back in college, for sure," the two-time national player of the year said. "People always talk about how big men can't do it in March and can't push through in March. But there are three teams that have really good big men. So, it's an important role, for sure."

Yes, dominant big men are a central theme in this year's Final Four, with the following centers set to take center stage in Phoenix this weekend: Purdue's Edey (7-4, 300 lbs), UConn's Donovan Clingan (7-2, 280 lbs) and NC State's DJ Burns Jr. (6-9, 275 lbs).


In an era where the name, image and likeness movement is in full effect and elite-level college basketball players are benefiting more by staying around rather than going pro, there's a reason why we've seen teams with dominant big men advance this far in the NCAA Tournament. But by the same token, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are two frontrunners for the NBA MVP award. After a stretch where guards and shooting ruled the sport, could we be seeing a shift, with the focus back on big men? At least in this year's Final Four, it's a big storyline. 

Think about this: The last 275-pound player to start in the Final Four was Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski in 2017. This year alone, there are three of those players, with Edey, Clingan and Burns. 

We could be on the verge of history due to this big man trend as there has only been one national championship game throughout history that has featured a matchup between two 7-foot starting centers – when Patrick Ewing and Georgetown met Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston in the 1984 title game, which was won by the Hoyas. If the favorites win Saturday night (UConn -11.5, Purdue -9.5) fans will be treated to Clingan vs. Edey, which would put an end to that 40-year drought.

So, what does this say about the previously disrespected centers?

"Well, I think everybody probably needs to go out and get a big guy now," NC State head coach Kevin Keatts said. "These are trends. It was trending toward nobody would play with their back to the basket. We're in the Final Four, three guys have led their teams to the Final Four because of the way they play. I mean, all three of those guys are really good.

"I'm excited about DJ Burns. He has great touch, is a lefty, and a willing passer. Obviously, we're playing against Zach Edey. If you ask me who keeps you up at night right now, it's Zach Edey. We got three teams that have three posts that are really, really good." 

Why Zach Edey's game will translate in the NBA

Edey and Clingan have been obvious headliners throughout this year's NCAA Tournament, ranked No. 1 and No 2 in our Sweet 16 player rankings.

But how about Burns? The 6-9, 275-pound fifth-year senior has authored one of the most surprising individual performances in the Big Dance in recent memory, going off for a season-high 29 points in Sunday's regional final win over Duke to book North Carolina State's first Final Four ticket since 1983. But Burns can do much more than just score. He has combined for 14 assists in four tournament games, including a seven-assist performance against Marquette in the Sweet 16. 

"I don't think I've ever coached a guy like that in my life," Keatts said of Burns, who clarified that he does not have any interest in playing football, despite national narratives this week. "Obviously, the transfer portal is open now. My coaches are like, ‘All right, we got to find DJ Burns.' I'm like, ‘You're not going to find DJ Burns anywhere else.' He's a throwback. 

"We were up 10 against Duke with about a minute to go. As a coach, I'm locked in, a minute to go, anything can happen. He's over there yelling to the fans, ‘Let's Go!' He's about as unique as you're ever going to get." 

That quote sums up this current big man trend and how fun it is. Edey is also about as unique of a case as we have seen in college basketball in a long time. The 7-4, 300-pound center is the first player to lead Division I in scoring and reach the Final Four since Oscar Robertson in 1960. He is only the second player since 1968 to have a 40-15 game in the NCAA Tournament, having gone for 40 points and 16 rebounds in the Boilermakers win over Tennessee in the Elite Eight.

Edey shared with FOX Sports on Thursday that when he first arrived on campus at Purdue as a freshman, Matt Painter and others were giving thought to redshirting him. But when Matt Haarms decided to transfer out of West Lafayette and head to BYU for his senior season, it meant Edey could jump in while Trevion Williams led the way in the frontcourt.

"He was close to going to Baylor," Painter said of Edey. "I just said, ‘Hey man, I can't promise that to you, but I'm not going to waste your year and not redshirt you if you're not going to play. But come in here and beat somebody out. 

"To me, I really liked him. I was somebody who thought he was going to be a really good player. I just didn't know when he was going to be like this. I'll tell you that. Somebody averages three points in high school, you don't think they're going to be a two-time national player of the year." 

And then there's Clingan, the 7-2 homegrown talent who has seen his NBA Draft stock skyrocket after his dominant tournament run, which included a 22-point, 10-rebound, five-block effort in UConn's 77-52 Elite Eight win over Illinois.

In four games this tournament, Clingan has totaled 40 rebounds and 13 blocks.

Can anyone stop UConn?

"He's a jolly green giant, a jolly and nice giant, but make no mistake about it … He is a dawg. An absolute dawg," Hurley said of Clingan, who considered turning pro after his freshman year. Hurley offered the following advice to the big man: "You should stay in college until you're ready to be a rotation player in the NBA and have a long pro career." 

Now, Hurley is joking about Clingan's performance in this year's NCAA Tournament. 

"Yeah, not bad for an honorable mention Big East guy," Hurley said following Clingan's 14-point, eight-rebound, eight-block performance against Northwestern, the first performance of its kind in the Big Dance since David Robinson completed that feat at Navy in 1986. "He's a freak, and there's a reason why he will be a lottery pick, and he's one of the most impactful players in the country, if not the most. [He's a] special guy, special person, and ‘Cling Kong' is inspired by the release of the new King Kong movie." 

So, we've all got our popcorn ready for Saturday night in Phoenix, as a trio of big men take center stage: the two established stars in Edey and Clignan, and then Burns, who showed off his swagger when talking about the upcoming matchup against Edey, who has dominated college basketball for two years straight.

"He hasn't had anybody put scoring pressure on him as much as I will," Burns said. "Well, maybe he did, but not under a stage like this."  

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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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