College Basketball
Matt Painter Q&A: Final Four run would be 'cherry on top' for Zach Edey, Purdue
College Basketball

Matt Painter Q&A: Final Four run would be 'cherry on top' for Zach Edey, Purdue

Updated Mar. 9, 2024 10:04 a.m. ET

Matt Painter nodded as I asked him the question in an exclusive conversation with FOX Sports.

"How do the next 4-5 weeks impact Zach Edey's legacy?"

He anticipates getting asked about it more and more — perhaps daily — as this month rolls on.

Edey, who will soon be the first men's college basketball player to repeat as National Player of the Year since Ralph Sampson in the 1980s, is looking to break down one final barrier this month: leading the Boilermakers on a Final Four run to Arizona.


"Ultimately, winning in the NCAA Tournament separates people on the greatness scale. It separates people, because Zach has put himself in that category," Painter, now in his 19th year at the helm of the Boilermakers, told FOX Sports. "When you think of stats, and you see David Robinson, Ralph Sampson and Shaquille O'Neal — with rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage and more — you look at him and compare him to those guys, and it makes you say, ‘That is really impressive.' I think the easy way out was just to go into the NBA Draft last year, get drafted in the second round, get a minimum contract and play in the G League. I think the hard and best thing for him to do actually was to come back, because the environment that he was in is where he's improved.

"No one's going to argue that he didn't improve at Purdue. No one's going to argue that he's not the best player in the country. He's also the most improved player in the country. So now, the cherry on top is being able to get to a Final Four and win a national championship. That's what gets him in that next stratosphere, and it gets our program in the next stratosphere. It does help everything. It helps me personally. It helps our recruiting, and that's what you want."

Ahead of No. 3 Purdue's clash with Wisconsin at 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX (watch on FOX and the FOX Sports) in which Edey will play his final game at Mackey Arena on Senior Day, Painter talked about the top player in the country, telling some epic stories and sharing what makes Edey so extraordinary.

The first time you ever saw Zach Edey, what were you thinking?

"I saw him at a workout, then I saw him play [for IMG Academy]. It wasn't the first time I had seen him. I had seen him on film, and we were on him and recruiting him. He was going to go one more year at IMG, then he made the decision [in 2020] that he wanted it to be his last year, and he was going to sign [with us] right then and there. I liked his hands. I liked the feet. He looked good in the workout, but he did not look good in pickup games. He didn't look bad, but he didn't get rebounds, and they never threw him the basketball. So I went back the next week to see him, and it was the same thing. He looked good in the workout but not as well in games. I believed he would be a good player, but I didn't know when he would be a good player. Some things really had to happen, but from that point on to when he got to our place, he really improved. He really put in a lot of time, and he hunkered down on improving the fundamentals of the game."

Zach Edey has a tough and-1 finish to extend Purdue's lead over Michigan State

What do people not understand about this kid that you get to see day in and day out? 

"He plays hard, and he is so competitive. He's such a good athlete in the way he moves at his size. So many times, guys at his size pick and choose when they go after a rebound or when they play hard. Zach goes after every single rebound. He can move laterally and run the court well. More than anything, he's got a really good competitive spirit. He is fighting for positioning at all times. You have to be ready for two hours of fighting him and wrestling with him. So many people get fatigued and have to foul him then. That really helps us." 

When did you realize that Zach wasn't just a good player, but that he could be one of the greatest to ever wear the Purdue uniform? 

"Before he played a game for us, I got COVID at the end of September and into October. I was out for two and a half weeks, and when I came back, he had made a big jump for us while I was gone in a short amount of time. I said to my staff, ‘he's going to be a great backup to Trevion Williams for us.' In his freshman season, the first five or six games, I tell people the story that he would get 10-14 points, five or six rebounds, four or five turnovers, and we'd go to the monitor twice. He just couldn't pass, and he had never been doubled before. And just his awareness, you always tell big guys to chin the ball well. But when he chinned it well, he was elbowing people in the head. He had to learn to drop his elbows and not protect the ball as much. But he had a really good freshman year and that summer, entering his sophomore season, he dominated our practices. 

"Trevion Williams was first-team All-Big Ten, and he's just dominating a top-five player in our league. So he's absolutely dominating, and now I'm telling my staff, ‘this is a big-time player. He's an all-conference level player.' Did I think he was the best player in college basketball? I wouldn't say that quite yet, but I thought he was the one you had to prepare the most for. But once he got through that season, you're saying to yourself that he is the real deal, and he is the guy we will build around. 

What does Zach's family and circle mean to him and how much of a connection do you feel in his circle?

"His mom and dad are not only great, but they're simple. Zach isn't someone who was getting recruited heavily. He wasn't anointed as the next coming or great one when he was 15 years old. He didn't start playing organized basketball until he was 16 years old, so they don't have the crap that a highly recruited guy can end up having to where you have that sense of ‘you're lucky to have me.' Rather, he felt genuinely fortunate to be at Purdue. Zach wants to be coached. The number one thing is you want to get better and you want to be coached, and you have great physical skills. When you have that, you're in business. You will make strides. It's such an easy match with him and his family. His family has been so supportive of him, and our fans have been very supportive of the family. Zach has the ability and the humility pieces. He is so selfless in how he plays the game. He is a great passer.

"That's what can separate him and get him to the NBA, in my opinion. He rebounds out of his area. His rebounds per minute rate is good. His competitive spirit is good. But if you play him 1-on-1, he can score the ball, but if you want to give him extra defensive attention, he can make the right reads and passes. A lot of guys his size, it's not their deal. They're not great in that area, but he's really improved and become a great passer." 

To that point, by every account, Zach has helped his NBA Draft stock this season and is getting on first-round radars. What have you seen from him and what are you telling evaluators? 

"A lot of times, guys don't reach out to you too much. The ones you have a long-term relationship with, and they know you're honest, you can have a real talk with them. Most of them realize you're biased, so they work around you, which I understand. But some of them are lazy to be honest. The ones who are thorough talk to the right people and they are stereotypical of players. They don't just say, ‘OK, he's this. He's bad at ball-screen defense. He's bad at changing ends. He's bad at passing. He doesn't fit the NBA.' Some people don't get off that because they're not watching. They're not really doing their job. Like, do your job. If you don't think he fits because of the way you play, I totally understand that. But don't tell me he's bad at ball-screen defense or changing ends, because he's not. He's really not. Now, that's for his size.

"If you go to an NBA game, it's fast on fast now. I'm not saying it's going to be a plus-plus for him at that level. But, there are people that are big like him that change ends that are productive players. He's just knocked everything down and he just keeps getting better. What people say he can't do, he works on. Whether it's his post D or ball screen D, or his passing, whatever's going on, he's such a knowledgeable guy. You can just talk through things with him. You don't have to sit there and be unbelievably demanding. You can talk him through things and say, ‘these scenarios are going to happen. When they do, here's what you have to do. You can't be behind a play."

The thing that you've said before that stands out to you the most about Zach off the court is his meal intake.

"Yeah, he's pretty solid in that area." (laughter)

What's that look like?

"Like, when you get ready for a game or just at halftime, he's got something in his hand at all times. He's eating a bar or he's eating a meal, or he's drinking something. When we go to film session, he's got something in his hands and he's eating something. It's just constant. So, when we go on the road, he's doing DoorDash while we're finishing a meal. He's a big sushi guy. You'll go into a banquet room at a hotel to smash two plates of food, and he's heading to the front desk to grab his sushi. Then, he'll go up to his room and order stuff for later on that night. Zach's first-team All-American as a player and in the eating area too. We had Isaac Haas and he was pretty impressive in that area. But I've never seen anybody eat like Zach. He takes the cake in that area, no pun intended."

You've coached Isaac Haas, among other 7-footers. How much has Zach forced you to change some things in your coaching style, or adapt some things, or maybe officiate practice differently than you normally would?

"Sometimes, he gets on me because I officiate things in practice and I just have my references of Big Ten road games when they don't call fouls when he gets contacted. I'll tell him, ‘hey man, this is a road game today. You're telling me that they don't miss things. That they don't grab your jersey or don't pull you.' There are days that they will call it and others that they don't call something. He rarely shows emotion on something that you go back and watch film and he's not right about it. I try to tell him to just play the game, but then you go back and see a guy karate chop him. Wouldn't you show emotion if someone chopped your arm? I'll say, ‘man, what's he talking about?' with a no-call. Then I'll look at the film and see he's right. I try to say to the officials, ‘hey, just be fair to both teams. Call it both ways.' See, there are times that he does foul and get away with things.

"But the reason he gets away with it is that they're letting other people foul him on the other end. The officials set that precedent to where they're going down that rabbit hole to where they don't want to foul out the other team. You get opposing coaches who lose their minds afterward and say, ‘Look at the box score.' And this and that. I want to say to them, ‘hey, watch the game. Let's watch all of these clips together. Like, what are you watching?' It's not supposed to be even. Where's the rule saying the fouls are supposed to be even? But we've all seen the rules where it's 7-1 in fouls and then they've got to even it up. It's the dumbest thing a coach can say when they go, ‘hey it's 6-1 in fouls with us having six.' Well, I'd tell your guys to quit fouling. That's what I would say if I was an official. It doesn't have to be even. How is that supposed to be even? You're fouling and we're not.

"Our free throw disparity is the best, if not one of the best in the country. But if you look at how much we don't foul across the board. Like, we don't foul very much, and we committed the previous amount of fouls last year. So, if our guy is getting fouled and we really don't do it often, there's a reason they call it free."

Coaches with great players all have different ways of motivating them. Is there a story where you decided to pick on him and press him, knowing that he could take it because it would make the whole team better? 

"Not really, no. He'll have a bad game every now and then. But, it's on his standards. You'll be like, ‘Okay, come on man' when he has a tough night. Then, you'll see the stats and see he had 27 points and 13 rebounds (laughter). You know, he made some huge plays for us against Illinois earlier this week (77-71 win on Tuesday). Some huge passes and key blocks. He had 28 and 8 in the game. He didn't rebound great, and he missed 10 shots. He never misses 10 shots! So, we get a top-15 win on the road and clinch the Big Ten regular season championship, but he missed 10 shots. That motivates him. That gets him going. You know, Illinois fans, right when we were getting ready to do the national anthem for the game. And, right as it gets quiet, a fan yells ‘F-U Edey!' And the place was silent! We're getting ready to do the national anthem. I'm thinking, ‘ahhh, they should not have done that.' That's all he needs is just a little bit more. He's a very competitive guy. But those highly competitive guys, if you give them a little more hot sauce, it gets them over the top man. I was thinking, boy, if there was a line on the game. Right when they said that, I thought, ‘that's worth four points right there.' I thought, man they should not have done that.

"He's such a competitive guy. I'm always thinking, when is he just not going to show up? If there was one game where his focus wasn't great, it's the Ohio State one. But like, it's one game. That's it for this season. He's just such a competitive guy. He's an unselfish guy. He's got elite size and a good skill set. The simplicity of what he has to do, he goes and works on things that help him. He works on his passing and his post moves. He watches a lot of film with one of our assistants Brandon Brantley, who's done a fabulous job with him. But he knows how to navigate in the game because he doesn't have to do a whole lot outside of his little world. He plays post-up basketball. He sets ball screens and dives, and he's got to be able to catch those balls and passes, but he's a joy to coach, obviously."

Zach Edey throws down a NASTY jam to help Purdue extend lead over Michigan State

There are coaches who have said the key to making an NCAA Tournament run is simple: just keep making the NCAA Tournament. Because the way it goes, it's not one six-game tournament, but rather six one-game tournaments. You're 27-3, and the narrative is that all that's left for Purdue to do is just a matter of doing it and putting up that March Madness run. Your team has an answer to every question. Do you subscribe to the fact that all that is left for you to do is get on that run of March redemption?

"Yes, without question. Our goal after our catastrophic losses to Fairleigh Dickinson and Saint Peter's — and I don't even like talking about it because I don't want to be disrespectful to the people that beat us because they beat us straight up. And I want them to have their just due. They earned it. But, now you've got to face it. I told our guys before the year, ‘listen to the noise because it's true. We did get beat by them, and that's on me as a coach. We've got to do a better job but don't act like our process isn't the right process. Believe in that. But, you can't turn the basketball over. We have proven that when we don't turn it over, we're very successful. When we do turn it over, our value goes down. But everybody does.' So, to me, that's the key. But also the key is facing adversity and owning things. You own it, you fix it. We know as a coaching staff, we're not going anywhere. We understand that. But we're not going to buy into derelicts out there that are saying things that aren't true. We understand our process, and we understand what we need to do to win games, but we understood it when we lost too.

"When people say, ‘you're doing the same things.' No, we're not doing the same things. We're getting the same result, and things aren't 100 to 0. It's a competition and there's somebody else out there. You've got to understand, and you talk to any baseball guy and they'll say, ‘I'm going to play the percentages.' You look at our percentages and record, and that speaks for itself. It comes down to not turning the ball over, but you don't just accomplish what we've accomplished without having a great system and executing it. Tony Dungy says it all the time: ‘We've just got to be better at what we do.' We've hired a new analytical firm to tell us what we should do better, and if we should be different. They've told us, ‘What you're doing as a whole is pretty good.' But we're not changing for the sake of changing. We've done some subtle things, but we haven't made wholesale changes and I think you see the results, because we've been pretty good this year."

Read more:

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 at @John_Fanta.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
College Basketball
Purdue Boilermakers

Get more from College Basketball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more