At Final Four, they turn back the clock with Purdue, NC State and an old-school matchup of big men

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The opener at the Final Four on Saturday might feel like a trip through a time machine.

Yes, those are Purdue and North Carolina State — one program here for the first time since 1980, the other trying to write a 21st-century version of college basketball’s greatest story ever told.

And yes, those are 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and 6-9 DJ Burns Jr. — a touch less than 600 pounds of big men patrolling the paint and dictating a style that has been out of fashion for a decade or more.

Whoever wins will face either UConn or Alabama for the title on Monday. Win or lose, both programs already know this will go down as one of their best seasons ever.

NC State Reboot

In a matchup filled with fascinating subplots, the most tantalizing is the Wolfpack.

Back in 1983, North Carolina State needed to win three games in the ACC Tournament simply to qualify for the NCAAs. Then, Jim Valvano and his “Cardiac Pack” won six games over three weeks — including two one-point wins and another in double overtime — before closing it out against Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team with Lorenzo Charles’ last-second stuff off Dereck Whittenburg’s airball for the title.

The scene of Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug is, at its core, what turned the tournament into what we now call “March Madness.”

This year, NC State fans are placing souvenirs at Valvano’s grave back in Raleigh, while Burns and Co. have taken the program on an equally unbelievable ride. A team on a four-game losing streak and going nowhere heading into this year’s ACC Tournament has gone undefeated in a string of nine straight win-or-your-season-is-done games.

“We’re probably a little different from everyone else that’s here at the Final Four,” coach Kevin Keatts said.

Big Man Burns

Part of what makes NC State so different is its smiling big man, Burns. He is, in some eyes, the 2024 version of two-time NBA All-Star Zach Randolph — a big man who can carve out space inside but can also spin and move and make plays under the basket.

But Burns has not shot a 3-pointer this year and though he can create from the perimeter — setting picks, cutting inside and making passes — that is not where he does the bulk of his damage.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said he sees Burns more as a forward, but “you see guys like him play at (center) a lot because coaches are trying to get their best players on the floor.”

It’s likely he’ll find himself paired up plenty against Edey in what’s shaping up as a titanic matchup — one in which staying out of foul trouble will be a key goal.

Can Burns, who’s listed at 275 pounds, hold up against a player who still has seven inches and 20 or 30 pounds on him?

“Hey, underestimate me all you want,” said Burns, who went for 29 points in the Elite Eight win over Duke. “You’ve been seeing what’s happening..”

Big Man Edey

Edey is an old-school, classic post player, and Purdue likes to play inside-out, the way a team might have in, say, 1990, before analytics and the 3-pointer took over the game. After losing in the Sweet 16 to the Boilermakers, Gonzaga coach Mark Few aptly called dealing with Edey a “pick your poison” conundrum.

If teams sag down, Edey can kick it out to Braden Smith, Lance Jones or another Purdue guard on a team that is second in the country in 3-point shooting at 40.6%. If they play single coverage, Edey can go to work in the paint. He’s the nation’s leading scorer with 25 points a game and the second-leading rebounder at 12.2.

On Friday, Edey became the first player since another great post man, Ralph Sampson, to go back-to-back as AP Player of the Year.

Watching all this from afar — and with a smile — is Russ Turner, the 6-7 coach of UC Irvine, a program that lives near the top of the Big West Conference. In the mid-2010s, Turner brought 7-6 center Mamadou N’Diaye to the program. The coach has never shied away from building around 7-footers.

“That’s the great thing about college basketball,” said Turner, while attending a coach’s convention in Phoenix that coincides with the Final Four. “There are different styles for different coaches and different teams. I see the value in all of it.”

Purdue’s historic run

Nobody will confuse Purdue’s run to the Final Four with North Carolina State’s.

In a way, though, what the Boilermakers are doing is even more rare.

For decades, Purdue has had rosters loaded with talent but has failed to get to the sport’s biggest stage. Last year, Purdue lost in the first round despite having Edey and a No. 1 seed. Through all this, coach Matt Painter has kept his job for 19 years. Before him, Gene Keady coached the Boilermakers for a quarter-century and never made a Final Four.

In the quickly shifting landscape of college basketball, Purdue treasures stability. Painter has gone to the transfer portal only twice in the past four years — a stat he brings up frequently and says is the lowest number among power programs.

Fitting, then, that an old-school way of doing things is what brings Purdue into a matchup that, in many ways, conjures memories of a different era.

“The way we’ve been able to do it at Purdue now is just like we did it then,” Painter said. “We’re trying to sign high school guys and develop them and grow with them.”


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