March Madness conundrum: How to officiate Purdue big man Zach Edey?

The sequence began with Tennessee forward Tobe Awaka draped like a poncho over college basketball’s most immovable big man.

Awaka was trying in vain to keep someone who stands 7-foot-4 and weighs 300-plus pounds from positioning himself to grab an offensive rebound.

As the ball rolled around the rim, Purdue’s Zach Edey freed himself by swinging his jumbo-sized elbow into Awaka’s jaw. Edey then rose for a put-back slam and drew a foul, infuriating the Tennessee bench and the orange-clad Vols supporters who couldn’t believe the call hadn’t gone against him first.

On the CBS broadcast of last Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup, play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon said, “Rick Barnes and the Tennessee fans are not happy with the early calls against the Volunteers.” The broadcast then cut to an incensed Barnes screaming from the Tennessee bench, “No way! No way!”

Edey’s rare combination of size, strength and skill doesn’t just cause problems for the opposing players who have to defend him. Referees who work the reigning national player of the year’s games also find it extremely difficult to whistle them fairly.

When asked if Edey is the toughest player to officiate in college basketball, former referee Bo Boroski responded without hesitation, “The answer is yes. He’s a unicorn.”

“I can’t recall anyone at that height, that weight and with that much talent that we’ve had to officiate,” said Boroski, who retired at the top of his game in 2022 after working three straight Final Fours. “When Zach Edey is on the offensive end, it is very difficult to officiate him because of his size and athletic ability.”

The legion of overmatched post players tasked with preventing Edey from establishing position wherever he wants have struggled to do so without fouling. Edey has attempted 424 free throws entering Saturday’s Final Four matchup with NC State, the most by any Division I player in a single season in 54 years and just 20 shy of the all-time record set by Furman’s Frank Selvy in 1954.

Nearly one-third of Edey’s 25 points per game have come via the charity stripe. He has fouled out a conga line of opposing big men so far this season. The player who has drawn the second most fouls during the 2023-24 season is Tulsa’s PJ Haggerty. Edey has made nearly as many foul shots (301) as Haggerty has attempted (309).

“You could probably get five to 10 more fouls per game on the defense because he’s just so big and so hard to defend,” said John Higgins, who retired from refereeing last year after working 29 NCAA tournaments and nine Final Fours. “Guys are doing everything in their power to keep him from the low block or from getting to the basket. They’re probably fouling more than we’re calling.”

Ask anyone at Purdue about how Edey is officiated, and they insist he should be shooting even more free throws than he already is. Purdue coach Matt Painter regularly pleads with referees, “Don’t hold it against Edey because he’s big.”

During a recent radio interview, Painter said that Edey takes a mugging every game from “guys who are cheapshotting him and chucking him and doing some different things.” Painter said he’s had “Final Four officials, not one of them but 10 of them, come over and say, ‘He gets fouled on every single play.'”

The way rival teams often see it, Edey inflicts more punishment than he endures. Opponents of Purdue are quick to complain that Edey draws ticky-tack fouls at one end of the floor and gets away with assault at the other end.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins tore into the referees and was ejected during the final seconds of a late-January loss at Purdue in which Edey shot more than twice as many free throws as Collins’ entire team. Tom Izzo echoed Collins’ frustration when asked during a timeout of last month’s Big Ten quarterfinal how his team might defend Edey better.

"I don't like the way it's been called. How's that?" Izzo responded, before storming off without further explanation.

The cacophony of complaints has only grown louder since the tipoff of the NCAA tournament brought higher stakes and a wider audience. Every whistle or no-call involving Edey has been intensely scrutinized as he has averaged 30 points and 16.2 rebounds while leading Purdue to its first Final Four in 44 years. Opposing fans have derisively nicknamed him “Foul Ming.”

This no-call on Edey from Purdue’s 80-68 Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga drew the furor of Zags fans on social media:

Tennessee fans were even more incensed that Edey didn’t pick up his first foul until midway through the second half on Sunday despite plays like this one:

The 33-11 free throw disparity in favor of Purdue over Tennessee led reporters to ask Barnes about the officiating multiple times during his postgame news conference. Barnes didn’t take the bait, calling Edey “a very unique player” and repeatedly describing the game as a “hard game to officiate.”

NCAA coordinator of officiating Chris Rastatter doesn’t appear to have any problems with how Edey has been officiated during the tournament thus far. The 11 officials he recommended to work the national semifinals and the title game include Ronald Groover, who did Purdue’s game against Tennessee, and Paul Szelc, who did the Boilermakers’ matchup with Gonzaga.

Boroski said that the biggest mistake referees working one of Edey’s games can make is to try to err on the side of not putting him or the big men defending him in foul trouble.

“You just can’t do that,” he said. “If that’s your mindset, you’re in for a long night and so are both teams."

The mindset he favors is the same one he preaches for every game: Calling fouls only when there’s “a high degree of certainty that they’re correct.”

“It’s not a let-them-play approach,” Boroski said, “but it is a you-better-be-right-approach.”

Otherwise, with a Final Four stage and the scrutiny that Edey draws, the backlash is sure to be swift.

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