A national championship could be decided in the post. What year is it again?

A national championship could be decided in the post. What year is it again?

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

GLENDALE, Ariz. — What nonconformists. What counterculturists. What fine bohemians. This colossus of an NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship game not only will showcase the first clash of 7-footers since Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon 40 years and six days prior but also two giants luring the eyeballs to a place eyeballs haven’t been luxuriating in recent decades: the post.

On a basketball planet gone positionless and gone mad for three-point shots, Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey has shot two this season, none in three previous seasons. Connecticut’s 7-2 Donovan Clingan has splurged for seven this season, one last season. Edey has made one, delighting a home crowd against Indiana and making him something of a 50 percent three-point shooter. Clingan has made two. They’re operating within college systems, but they’re also bucking fashion.

“A beautiful duel between the two,” the eloquent 6-6 Purdue man of impactful energy, Mason Gillis, said at one point Sunday, even as Gillis stressed the team game and the entire cast of very good players in a match of No. 1 seeds with a combined record of 70-7.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy,” Clingan said of the Ewing-Olajuwon follow-up four decades on.

After all the years of the rainbows and splashes of the threes, all the Stephen Curry and all the Caitlin Clark, fans might spend a closing Monday night focusing on the plodding old post. That’s even if from the looks of things on social media, some find the post a dull muddle and reel at the officiating of same.

Meanwhile, those who fancy basketball itself might relish this reminder that big men exist. “It just shows the role of the big man and how much of an influence they have on the team,” Clingan said Sunday, his shoe tips sticking out from beneath the tablecloth on the interview dais on which he sat. “I just feel like there are people who don’t see these bigs as impactful just because we’re not knocking down threes every other possession.”

“I don’t think it gets overlooked,” Edey offered, “by the people that matter.”

If the fashion of the 7-footer has become the chic one who stands 7-foot-4, hails from Paris and had launched 367 threes as of Sunday in his rookie NBA season for the San Antonio Spurs, then Edey and to some degree Clingan would qualify as throwbacks. It’s especially nostalgic to watch Edey, who also hails from a global metropolis (Toronto), think his way through his post moves. It can feel kind of revolutionary.

“Ummm,” Edey said Sunday, “I don’t know if I feel, like, revolutionary about posting up and shooting a hook shot. But I think I’ve always just kind of stuck with what worked for me. I think people have always kind of like told me, ‘Hey, you should work on your shooting’ — I have worked on my shooting. I feel like I am a good shooter, and you can see that from the free throw line (71 percent this season, 70.6 in his Purdue career). But it’s just not what’s needed in the Purdue offense, so I’m not going to try to force a certain thing. I’m not going to try to put up one three a game and then maybe mess up the flow of our offense. I’ve got to do what’s best for Purdue basketball. I’m going to work on my game, obviously, but when it gets to game time, take the best shots for Purdue basketball.”

Purdue basketball finds it best these days to throw it down to Edey and let him decide what to do next — “no different than a point guard” in that aspect, Coach Matt Painter said — five years after Painter found it best to throw the ball on the perimeter to Carsen Edwards, the three-gusher who led Purdue to within an inch of the 2019 Final Four.

Said Braden Smith, the Purdue guard: “Yeah, for sure. I mean, this world of basketball that we’re in now is definitely the three-ball, but he’s just doing what he knows to do. He hasn’t played basketball a long time [since sophomore year of high school], and there’s no reason for a 7-4 guy to go out there and shoot threes, right? You’re taller than everybody. Why wouldn’t you go down there and capitalize on the points down there? So he’s worked his butt off to get all the points and everything that he can do, and he’s just such a skilled player, so being able to have someone like that definitely gives us that edge.”

Gillis, while describing at length that what matters most is how Edey collaborates within the construct of the offense and reads defenses, stopped midway to say: “Yes, he is a groundbreaking player, a generational player. He’s a monster. He’s a cheat code. There are so many descriptive words to describe him and who he is as a person.” As for whether those words include “refreshing” or “revolutionary” in a continuing three-ball era, Gillis said: “I would say absolutely to that because how many times do you see a 7-4 player that can move like he does? He’s agile. He plays 40 minutes a game [including 117 of Purdue’s past 120]. He doesn’t get tired. And that’s definitely refreshing. That’s definitely revolutionary. Seven-four, 300 pounds, imagine yourself out there running up and down for 40 minutes.”

He’s the fourth-season, two-time national player of the year in various votes, and he’s a compelling watch for the second-season Clingan, who knows the intricacies fans might study if they can rummage around for inner patience. “He’s able to finish over both shoulders,” Clingan said, later adding what he observes: “The way he posts up and gets his position early, he’s so dominant. He can go over that left shoulder, you know, at will. He has great touch, both hands. If they’re going to play the right hand, he’s very good at stepping through and just countering. I’ve just got to be as technical as possible, play low with leverage and be ready to be as physical as I can.”

Edey is further along, almost 22 years old to Clingan’s freshly 20, but Clingan also shoulders less, what with the Connecticut basketball symphony well established across 11 masterful tournament games in 2023 and 2024, including a 2023 title for which Clingan, Connecticut native, served as reserve. Edey has 140 points and 77 rebounds in the 2024 tournament, Clingan 81 and 45, but Connecticut has that frightening offense that saw five players score 12 or more in the national semifinal against Alabama, and with the 12, from all-American Tristen Newton, coming decorated with a hefty nine assists.

Gazing within that offense, Painter called Clingan “really good” and said he “changes the game defensively, and offensively he’s a good player, too,” and so: “He’s just going to keep coming. He’s going to be a fabulous player. He’s got 15 to 20 years in front of him.”

First, he’s got a Monday night of which he said: “I love big battles. I love competing at a high level. You’re playing college basketball and you’re coming to U-Conn. for moments like this.” He told of some experience with fellow sequoias, playing this year against Creighton’s 7-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner, Kansas’s 7-2 Hunter Dickinson and 6-11 Joel Soriano of St. John’s, but then turned his thoughts to Edey.

“Obviously,” he said, “he’s a little bigger than the rest.”

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