Canadian NCAA hoops star Zach Edey wins 2nd straight AP player of the year

The child who wanted Zach Edey’s autograph during his Purdue recruiting trip apparently saw something others missed.

Big Maple was destined to be a basketball star.

While many college coaches passed on the unpolished Canadian prospect as the basketball world became enamoured with perimeter play and 3-point shooting, Purdue coach Matt Painter took a swing on his third centre in the recruiting class and found a gem who led the Boilermakers to their first Final Four since 1980.

On Friday, Toronto’s Edey collected his second Associated Press Player of the Year award, becoming the first back-to-back winner since Ralph Sampson won three in a row at Virginia from 1981-83. Edey received 57 of 62 votes from journalists who vote in the weekly AP Top 25. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht received three votes and Houston’s Jamal Shead got two.

Edey is the fifth player to win the award in consecutive seasons though Lew Alcindor also won the award twice in non-consecutive seasons.

“I get to pay him [coach Matt Painter] back. There were so many coaches that looked over me, like you could — name a program — I could name a coach that looked over me,” Edey said. “Tennessee, Rick Barnes is a great coach, but he was at our practice, looked over me. It’s kind of been the story of my life. People have doubted me. People looked past me. Can’t do that anymore.”

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A dedicated work ethic and a fiery, steely-eyed determination has turned he 7-foot-4, 300-pound Edey from intriguing project into college basketball’s biggest star.

The truth is Painter, who routinely builds his team around big men, almost missed, too. His first two choices in that recruiting class were Hunter Dickinson, who chose Michigan, and Ryan Kalkbrenner, who wound up at Creighton. Dickinson became an All-American with the Wolverines and again at Kansas while Kalkbrenner was a two-time all-Big East selection.

Edey outplayed them all, becoming the first national scoring leader to take his team to the Final Four since Oscar Robertson in 1960.

He heads into Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina State averaging 25.0 points and 12.2 rebounds for a second straight double-double. He also had 2.2 blocks while shooting 62.2 per cent from the field this season, virtually willing the Boilermakers past Tennessee 72-66 in the regional final with a career-high 40 points and 16 rebounds after last March’s shocking first-round loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson.

Edey grew up in Toronto playing hockey and baseball until the strike zone became too large. Eventually, he landed at IMG Academy in Florida where he played only one season on the school’s top basketball team. Still, Painter took a chance.

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“We were fortunate, right? I didn’t know he was going to turn into a two-time national player of the year,” Painter said. “I did think he would be good, I just didn’t know when he would be good. But he had good hands, he had good feet, he just needed repetition and work so right away, I was like ‘We’re going to throw him the ball when he’s open.’ He’s always open.”

Edey wasn’t sure if Purdue was the right fit, either.

But his mother, Julia, remembers how that youngster at the Boilermakers’ scrimmage game made them feel welcomed. Edey explained he wasn’t even on the team, but the kid didn’t care. He just wanted the autograph.

Purdue Boilermakers centre Zach Edey dunks during the first half of his team’s 72-66 win over the Tennessee Volunteers in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Sunday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. (Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

“Zach and I were standing in the tunnel and we said, `That kid just got a signature from a nobody,”‘ Julia Edey recounted, drawing laughter from Edey, his parents and Purdue’s sellout crowd on Senior Day.

Now Edey will leave Purdue as perhaps the greatest player in school history.

He broke Rick Mount’s 54-year-old school scoring record and now has surpassed 2,400 points. He broke Joe Barry Carroll’s 44-year-old career rebounding mark. His jersey number, 15, hangs in the rafters alongside other All-Americans such as John Wooden and Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, even one of Edey’s former teammates, Jaden Ivey.

Edey and his teammates are two wins away from Purdue’s first national title since Wooden led the Boilermakers to the 1932 championship.

And he did it with an unforgettably powerful, selfless style that endeared him to fans and teammates without shedding the same humility he treated the young autograph seeker all those years ago.

“You can tell he loves the game, you can tell he respects the game and not every No. 1 person is like that,” fifth-year forward Mason Gillis said of his teammate. “I think a lot of people don’t respect the game, don’t respect people around him. He does. He looks out for everybody, he’s a good guy, he stays in the gym and I don’t think we could ask for a better national player of the year. He does it the right way.”

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