‘It’s going to be a bloodbath’: Purdue, NC State highlight battle of the big men in 2024 Men’s Final Four

Zach Edey, meticulously practicing his shooting form, poses a problem to opponents because of his size. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

NC State’s DJ Burns acknowledges the crowd with gratitude after receiving thunderous applause. He hopes to pose a challenge for Purdue’s Zach Edey. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

GLENDALE – Following the success of the Golden State Warriors dynasty throughout the 2010s, basketball teams at all levels have evolved to play a positionless game.

Gone are the days where centers are forced to stay in the paint and guards are the shortest players on the team. Now, it is normal to see 7-footers pull up from three and point guards taller than 6-feet-4.

While positionless basketball is the norm in 2024, this year’s Men’s Final Four is a blast from the past as the big men are the stars of the show on one side of the NCAA tournament bracket.

The most intriguing matchup comes in Saturday’s first semifinal game at State Farm Stadium in Glendale between Purdue and North Carolina State and their big men, Zach Edey and DJ Burns Jr.

“It’s going to be a blood bath. No one is going to be getting easy shots down there,” said NC State guard Michael O’Connell.

Edey enters Saturday’s game recently being named the Associated Press Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year for the second consecutive season. The 7-foot-4 center is the first player to earn that honor since Ralph Sampson from 1981-1983.

This season, Edey led the country in scoring and is second in rebounding with 25 points and 12.2 rebounds. In the NCAA tournament, Edey has continued to show why he’s one of the most dominant players in the sport as he recorded a career-high 40 points and 16 rebounds in Purdue’s Elite Eight win over Tennessee.

Going into the Final Four, Edey is not satisfied with his achievements. After a monumental upset loss as a No. 1 seed last year to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson, Edey & Co. have been out for vengeance.

In doing so, Edey remains humble and focused on the team, coach Matt Painter said.

Zach Edey fine-tunes his screen-slipping technique, culminating in powerful two-handed dunks during practice. (Photo by Bennett Silvyn/Cronkite News)

“At the end of the day, he just wants it to be a team game. He wants the attention to go to everybody,” Painter said. “He does a great job of facilitating that, being humble. That’s refreshing. Who doesn’t want to play with a great player but also a great player that’s unselfish and humble like he is?”

Edey has been so dominant because his opponents can’t match his size. This has made game-planning against Purdue so difficult.

NC State coach Kevin Keatts says that the Player of the Year has been the root of his problems while getting his team ready for Saturday’s matchup.

“Obviously we’re going to play against Zach Edey. If you ask me who keeps you up at night right now, it’s Zach Edey,” Keatts said. “He’s playing at a high level. He can score the ball. We got to get him out of that lane. He lives in that lane. He’s really talented.”

Luckily for NC State, if Edey isn’t the largest player in college basketball, the Wolfpack might have that guy on their roster.

DJ Burns Jr., who has been one of the tournament’s biggest breakout players, stands in at 6-feett-9, 275 pounds, and has the skill set to match Edey all game.

Burns has been NC State’s leading scorer in the postseason, which encompasses nine straight elimination games dating back to the ACC tournament. In the Elite Eight against Duke, Burns dropped 29 points, along with four rebounds and two assists.

For how hard it is to gameplan against Edey, Burns is just as difficult for opposing teams.

“What really jumps out watching DJ Burns is how competitive he is,” Painter said. “To me, he is like Zach Randolph, which is a huge compliment because Zach was a fabulous player. The ability to score, to pass and I love the way when he’s not in the game he’s engaged and cheering for his teammates.”

Purdue and NC State aren’t the only teams in the Final Four that run through their big man. UConn’s Donovan Clingan is also toward the top of many national leaderboards and the favorite to win the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament, according to BetMGM.

With the success of the big man in the NCAA tournament, amid the positionless basketball era, teams around the country could be looking to add their own versions of Edey or Burns.

“​​I think everybody probably needs to go out and get a big guy now,” Keatts said. “These are trends. It was trending towards 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.”

Lucas Gordon LOO-kiss GORE-din
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Lucas Gordon expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business and digital audiences. Gordon has interned at The Arizona Republic.

Bennett Silvyn BEH-nit SIL-vin
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Bennett Silvyn expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business, marketing and sports management. Silvyn has interned in marketing and social media for the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission, as a reporter for Arizona Foothills Magazine, in sponsorships for the Arizona Rattlers and in social and digital media for FC Tucson. Silvyn has also reported for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network and The State Press.