After scoring a season-high 38 points on 63% shooting, grabbing 13 rebounds, dishing three assists and adding three steals in Purdue’s 77-61 win over Michigan State on Jan. 29, Boilermakers center Zach Edey appeared at the team’s postgame press conference in a custom shirt his mother had had printed, emblazoned with his nickname, “The Big Maple,” a reference to home country of Canada.

On the back of the shirt was the phrase “He’s not just big, eh?”

There have been a handful of supersized players to gain attention in college basketball in recent years. Standing 7-foot-6, Tacko Fall nearly led Central Florida to an upset of Zion Williamson and Duke in the 2019 NCAA Tournament; 7-2 Bol Bol was a five-star recruit who played well for Oregon before getting hurt and departing for the NBA; 7-5 Jamarion Sharp has averaged more than blocks in each of the last two seasons for Western Kentucky.

But none of those players is anywhere near as dominant as Edey, a consensus first-team All-American who ranks in the top 25 in the nation in scoring (22.3 points per game, sixth), rebounding (12.8, second), blocks (2.1, 22nd) and double-doubles (26, first).

“He’s not just big” is more than just a pithy slogan on the 7-4 center’s shirt. It’s a mission statement for his play, which has taken Purdue to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and taken Edey to one national player of the year award (from the Sporting News), with more likely on the way.

His coach, Matt Painter, has seen the despair Edey induces in opponents and has compared it to one of the coach’s teammates during his own playing days – national player of the year Glenn Robinson.

“You’ve got to give everything and anything to deal with his big ass,” Painter said. “They don’t feel it’s fair, and it’s not. That’s like playing with Glenn Robinson in college. There’s nights when he’s got it rolling, you’re at his mercy.”

Painter has emphasized all season it’s more than size which creates Edey’s decided advantage over everyone he’s faced on the block this season.

“Obviously, he’s got a great physical presence,” the 18th-year coach told The Ringer. “But there’s a basketball player inside there. If he was 6-4, he’d play basketball.”

Edey was always an athlete – he loved baseball and, of course, hockey as a child – but he was a late arrival to basketball, only playing the game on an organized basis beginning his sophomore year of high school. He was awkward at first and was lightly-recruited out of IMG Academy in Florida, ranking No. 436 nationally in the 2020 class, according to 247 Sports.

But Purdue, which has built its program around old-school back-to-the-baskets posts in recent years, signed him as a developmental project. Painter likes to redshirt such players, reasoning they’ll be more effective as fifth-year senior than true freshmen, but Edey played so well in preseason camp the coach eschewed such an option and the freshman backed up All-American Trevion Williams that season. As a sophomore he supplanted Williams in the starting lineup – though Williams played 20 minutes per game to Edey’s 19 – and earned honorable mention All-American honors.

With Williams in the professional ranks this season, Edey has blossomed into a 30-minute-per-game player – Painter insists he was in good enough shape to play that much last year, as well – and a nearly unguardable weapon in the post.

Asked his strategy for guarding Edey one-on-one in practice, 6-10 Boilers forward Caleb Furst shrugged.

“The short answer is you can’t really,” the 2021 Indiana Mr. Basketball out of Blackhawk Christian said.

Edey scored 30 of Purdue’s 63 points in a win over Austin Peay in the second game of the season and it was around that time his teammates began referring to him as the best player in the country. No one made a special point to emphasize it; it has simply become an article of faith among the Boilermakers that that is what they have on their side.

“You’re going up against the best player in possibly the last 20 or 30 years,” Boilers backup center Trey Kaufman-Renn said.

Inevitably, defenses have adjusted, sending all manner of double teams at Edey in an effort to get the ball out of his hands. When the Toronto native came to Purdue, he had to be taught how to pass almost from scratch by Purdue assistant coach Brandon Brantley, but he has blossomed in that area, as well, having put a new emphasis on reading defenses and finding the right kick-out option against double-teams this year.

“He’s worked really hard at his passing and his decision-making,” Painter said. “And that’s what’s so cool. ... He’s an unbelievable weapon. I never would have thought it would be this at this point when I went the first time to recruit him. You guys gotta understand, this is his sixth year of organized basketball. I don’t know what age you were, but I was 10 in my sixth year of organized basketball.

Edey’s drive to improve as a passer came in part from his experience in the Sweet 16 against 15th-seeded St. Peter’s last season, when the undersized Peacocks harassed him into five turnovers on the way to a 67-64 upset victory which ended Purdue’s season.

“That was just a weird game,” Edey said. “They had a lot of junk defenses, they would come down on one look and just switch it up every possession so you could never really get in the flow. That was something I learned was to read defenses every time I catch the ball; no matter how they’re playing me, I’ll make the right read.”

As the season has worn on, Edey has taken a relative backseat more often, content to pass out to the perimeter for open shots for his teammates rather than forcing his way through two or three defenders to get to the rim. He is the rare superstar who can act as a facilitator for almost a full game, then take over when his team needs an important basket.

“I don’t really care how many points I get,” Edey said. “As long as we’re winning the game, we’re going up 20, I’m having a positive impact on the floor, I don’t feel like I need to score. I can focus on other things. I’m always going to keep posting hard and that forces them into rotations, but I’m going to focus on rebounding, playing defense, blocking shots. I’ll score the ball when I have to, when I’m one-on-one, I’ll go score the ball and make a play, but if it’s not the right play for me to score the ball,I’m not going to force one up.”

Painter has made a point to recruit players who are willing to fill a role if they do not emerge as one of the Boilermakers’ best players. In Edey he has found a player who will fill a role despite being the team’s best player.

In Painter’s mind, that quality is a product of Edey’s days as an underrecruited teenager.

“Nobody told him he was going to be the next coming,” Painter said. “No one told him he was going to be an All-American or have a chance to be national player of the year of Big Ten MVP. That was never in his thought process. He just listens to coaches and tries to take it in and works on his game. It’s that simple. ... We have a lot of guys like that, but for a guy of his stature and what he’s accomplished, it’s pretty cool.”

When Edey is not pouring in right-handed hooks rim-bending dunks or creating wide-open shots for Purdue’s guards with kick-out passes, he is crashing the glass to get the Boilermakers extra shots. His offensive rebound percentage of 21.77 this year is the best in the country and the second-best in the last 14 seasons, per Sports Reference.

Here, too, Edey is more than just big.

“He has a really good nose for the basketball, and he’s different than most people his size in the fact that he can rebound out of his area, then he can give multiple efforts,” Painter said. “A lot of times guys that are that big, they can make the play, but then they can’t make the next play. He just stays with it.”

Of course, there are still games, even now, when teams insist on guarding Edey with one player in the post. In the Big Ten Tournament, Ohio State and Penn State guarded him with one man for most of the semifinals and finals and Edey scored a combined 62 points in those contests.

“It definitely makes the game pretty simple for me,” Edey said. “I’ve just got to score the ball every time I touch it. ... There was a point (against Ohio State) halfway through the first half when one of our coaches, P.J. (Thompson) came up to me: ‘This is just one of those days you’ve got to get 30.’”

Edey had 32 that night, then 30 to lead the Boilermakers past the Nittany Lions for the title, 67-65. He powered through three defenders on the way to the rim for Purdue’s final basket from the floor with 1:26 left, quieting a Penn State comeback attempt.

“You’ve got a place to go with the ball,” Painter said. “Coaches don’t just have an abundance of guys that they can go, ‘Hey, just give it to him, we’re on the road.’ They just don’t. … He’s definitely a safety net for all of us, especially in late-game situations.”

Nor is Edey simply impactful on the stat sheet. Though quiet by nature, he has emerged as Purdue’s leader this season, with players looking to him to provide emotion on the court and guidance off of it. After the Boilermakers won the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in November, three straight victories over West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke which rocketed them from No. 24 to fifth in the AP Poll, it was Edey who sent a text to the whole team reminding it not to let “this media stuff” get to its head.

“We’re ride or die with him,” Purdue wing Ethan Morton says.

While most of the Boilermakers watched the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday after winning the Big Ten Tournament, Edey was still on the court at the United Center, signing autographs and taking photos. He stays after every game at Mackey Arena for sometimes close to 45 minutes fulfilling every request from lingering fans.

“The school’s given me so much, that’s my way to give back,” Edey said of signing autographs. “Especially with the kids, it’s always nice to sign for the kids, give them a memory, maybe lasts them for life, maybe create Boilermaker fans for life.”

On Sunday, he had to be dragged away from the adoring throngs to speak with the media. He arrived for the press conference wearing around his neck the net from one of the hoops, which he had cut down without standing on a ladder.

“It’s always crazy, he said of the attention he receives. “I never thought this would be my career at Purdue.”

College Sportswriter

Dylan Sinn is a College Sportswriter, covering mainly Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame, as well local colleges in northeast Indiana and Fort Wayne TinCaps baseball. He is a graduate of Indiana University and an AP Top 25 football voter.