Purdue is a problem for the Big Ten, but are Boilermakers built to last?

EAST LANSING, Mich. – A crowd of 14,797 at the Breslin Center came alive as unranked Michigan State put together a 21-3 run that bridged both halves and threatened the third-ranked Purdue Boilermakers. Each successive jumper from diminutive shooting guard Tyson Walker drew an increasingly guttural reaction from his diminutive head coach, Tom Izzo. But then came the time when hillbilly Zach Edey had had enough.

The 7-foot-4, 305-pound center, who arrived in East Lansing as a favorite for this season’s Naismith College Player of the Year, pirouetted around a post defender to cut off the angle for his teammate along the perimeter. Edey took a pass on the right side of the paint, stepped the width of a small river and slammed the ball home to silence an entire arena. The Boilermakers led by four near the midway point of the second half when the alpha dog started barking.

“Just a big guy, man,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said.

Purdue’s Zach Edey steals the show

Purdue's Zach Edey steals the show

The Boilermakers star had 32 points and 17 rebounds in a 64-63 win over Michigan State.

But Izzo’s group refused to back down as a Monday morning accelerated into a thriller with two of the Big Ten’s toughest and most injury-riddled teams pounding each other for 37 fouls that went exasperating the two coaches. Purdue combined its inside scoring with timely grabs and clutch free throws from true freshman Fletcher Loyer; the Spartans played with Edey forcing him to defend ball screens and probe his maneuverability. One body blow after another left Michigan State clinging to a one-point lead with 12 seconds left.

Painter called for the most egregious solution: an inbounds pass to Braden Smith. A haggling with Loyer on the side. An inbounds pass to Edey for another drive, another score with 1.8 seconds left, another victory for the Boilermakers who improved their record to 17-1 (6-1 Big Ten) to tie the best start in school history.

“We were going to see him, obviously,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said of Edey, who finished with 32 points and a season-high 17 rebounds on 13-of-26 shooting. while logging the most playing time of anyone on the team. “They got one-on-one (defensively) and were very physical and made it tough. But for us, it’s not really a decision. If you let him get it, we’re going to go to him. .”

Saturday’s final sequence was the microcosm of an afternoon and a season revolving around Edey, the towering junior from Toronto who is averaging 21.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game, both leading in Power 5 conferences. It’s the most obvious reason Painter’s team is on track for a No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament and the reason some believe Purdue can capturing the first Big Ten national championship since Michigan State in 2000.

The midway point of the calendar has come and gone with no rival able to stop Edey.

But almost everything that could be used to classify the Boilermakers as a potential mastermind can be perfectly repurposed into a list of postseason vulnerabilities. And that’s the kind of harsh reality Purdue could face in the Big Ten tournament and beyond.

— Yes, Edey is one of the most effective scorers in the country, but Purdue relies on him for nearly 30 percent of its production and needed that number to reach 50 percent in Sunday’s narrow win. Edey’s 26 field goal attempts were more than double anyone else on his team.

— Yes, Edey is better at disappearing double teams than at any point in his collegiate career, but the Boilermakers are tied for 161st in 3-point shooting at 7.6 per game. Loyer, whose 17 points against the Spartans provided enough leverage to escape East Lansing with a win, is the only player on the roster with more than 25 made 3s this season.

– Yes, Edey increased his blocked shots from 1.2 per game as a sophomore to 1.4 per game as a junior while learning how to defend without fouling, but the Spartans’ guards twisted and turned the big man in pick-and-roll coverage by dragging him to the perimeter to guard him in space. Walker (30 points) and guard AJ Hoggard (14 points) were Michigan State’s leading scorers and hit a handful of jumpers after drawing Edey into high ball screens.

— Yes, Edey is tall and strong enough to pose problems for some of the best big men in college basketball, but the 2014-15 Duke team with Jahlil Okafor (17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds) and the 2011-12 Kentucky led by Anthony Davis (14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds) is the only national champion in the last 13 years to build their careers around centers at a time when the high-level guard play succeed in March. Both of Purdue’s starting guards, Loyer and Smith, are true freshmen.

“Coaches just don’t have a lot of guys (that) they can say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to give it to him when we’re on the road,”’ Painter said. “I just don’t … I love playing inside out. I love these beans. A lot of people look at our works and say, ‘Man, you’re doing a great job.’ If you don’t have the horses right there, these plays don’t work. It’s a player-driven deal, and Zach can land that deep position. It’s definitely a safety net for all of us, especially in late game situations. “

How much success continues will be closely monitored by coaching staffs in the Big Ten, a league that clings to quality big men despite the sport’s shift toward perimeter threats. It’s one of the reasons Purdue and Michigan are the only schools in the conference to reach a Sweet 16 in the past two years, with neither advancing past the Elite Eight. It’s part of the explanation why schools like Iowa (Luka Garza), Illinois (Kofi Cockburn) and Indiana (Trayce Jackson-Davis) haven’t made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament after their stars piled up a lot of wins of the regular season.

But perhaps Edey can become an exception to this recent rule. Maybe he’s too old and too skilled for any of that to matter.

Izzo’s team gave Purdue all it could handle, and Edey still delivered the knockout blow.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody,” Edey said of his game-winning play. “… I should have dipped it, honestly.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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