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Can Iowa Beat Purdue’s Big by Going Small?

Zach Edey poses a massive problem for the Hawkeyes as they prepare to take on Purdue. The solution may be to go small.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Purdue vs Iowa Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

After a rough start to Big Ten play, the Iowa Hawkeyes have emerged as one of the conference’s hottest teams by winning seven of their last nine games. However, Iowa’s hot streak will face a serious test when the Hawkeyes collide with the #1 ranked Purdue Boilermakers on Thursday night. Matt Painter’s squad enters the game boasting a 22-2 record and having lost only one home contest over the past thirteen months.

While the Boilermakers have a deep and balanced roster, the strength of the team is undoubtedly the massive mountain of man patrolling the paint for Purdue. 7’4” junior center Zach Edey has emerged as one of the most dominant forces in college basketball this season. After playing only 19 minutes per game last year thanks to a timeshare with fellow big man Trevion Williams, Edey has developed into a high-efficiency two-way monster capable of dominating opponents for over 31 minutes per game.

Edey currently leads college basketball in Player Efficiency Rating (41.7), Win Shares (6.3) and Offensive Win Shares (4.4), Win Shares Per 40 Minutes (.347), Box Score Plus/Minus (+15.6), and both Offensive Rebound and Total Rebound Percentage (22.7% and 25.2%, respectively). Edey is the Big Ten’s most efficient shooter at 64.8% and trails only Trayce Jackson-Davis for the conference’s most blocks per game with 2.2. Edey is borderline un-guardable near the rim, is one of the best players in the country at drawing fouls, and alters or deters more shots in the paint than one can count.

Suffice to say, Edey will pose a major problem for Iowa when the two teams meet this week for their only regular season matchup of the year. The Hawkeyes lack traditional centers like Luka Garza and Jack Nunge who possess the size and strength to wrestle with Edey in the post for 40 minutes. Iowa’s starting center is 6’9” Filip Rebraca, a player who failed to score more than three points in any of Iowa’s three matchups against Edey and the Boilermakers last season.

The Hawkeye best equipped to battle Edey on the block (Josh Ogundele) has not played in a game since December 21 due to a knee injury. Iowa could always give more run to 6’11” sophomore Riley Mulvey, but he has played double digit minutes only once this season and it is unclear whether he has developed the skills and physicality to match up against Edey for considerable lengths of time. Frankly, Iowa would struggle to defend and score against Edey on the block even if they had a traditional center, as the Purdue big man has made mincemeat of opposing fives for basically the entire season.

However, Edey’s status as a walking mismatch does not necessarily mean that Iowa is doomed against the Boilermakers. While the Hawkeyes may not have the size to match up against Edey, they could consider attacking the Purdue giant by going small. As excellent as Edey is on the low block, he suffers from the same weakness that frustrates many of the largest players in modern basketball: defending on the perimeter.

Edey lacks the footspeed to hang with quicker players who can attack him off the bounce and is not going to win many footraces from one end of the court to the other in transition. He often struggles as a pick-and-roll defender, being forced to choose between risking being beaten off the dribble on switches or playing drop coverage which can leave him vulnerable to open jump shots. Edey may be one of the most formidable low post defenders in college basketball, but he is mortal (vulnerable, even) if his opponents can draw him away from the lane.

While Rebraca has improved in his ability to attack from the perimeter this year, he is a reluctant enough jump shooter that Edey would likely feel empowered to sag off him outside the paint knowing that he is not likely to consistently make the Boilermakers pay from mid/long range. Kris Murray, however, would not give Edey such luxury. Murray has played just under 20% of his minutes at center over the last five games according to KenPom, and while he may not be as skilled in the low post as Rebraca, his ability to attack defenders off the dribble and punish them both from three and in the midrange makes him an interesting option in this matchup.

If Iowa plays without a traditional five, it would not only force Purdue to pick one of Iowa’s versatile perimeter players to have their 7’4” center guard, but it could potentially draw the Boilermakers’ primary rim protector away from the basket, opening up lanes for the Hawkeyes to attack the hoop in ways they could not otherwise. While some coaches might consider switching to a zone defense to help keep their center out of such one-on-one matchups, Purdue coach Matt Painter has a tendency to stick with man defense through thick and thin, which could allow Iowa to exploit this matchup for much of the game.

The small-ball strategy is not without risks, however. Aside from minimizing the role of a very good player in Filip Rebraca, going small would make it easier for Edey to score in the paint and risk putting Iowa’s small-ball center (presumably Murray) in foul trouble. While these are both legitimate concerns, neither are reason enough for the Hawkeyes to discard this strategy. First, Murray may not be able to lock down Edey on defense, the Hawkeyes likely don’t have a single player on the roster who can. Edey will be able to get his points against Iowa no matter who the Hawks put on him, so they might as well play someone at the five who can get Edey back on the other end. Similarly, while concerns about Murray getting into foul trouble are legitimate, that concern extends equally to the bigger player who will frequently find himself out of position when guarding a quicker opponent. If Fran McCaffery can emphasize the importance of his small-ball bigs playing smart and defending without fouling (something Murray has proven he can do during previous tussles with opposing centers), Iowa’s small-ball lineups could given them an interesting counterpunch to deploy against Purdue.

Don’t expect Iowa to eschew the center position completely against Purdue, as the smart money is still on Filip Rebraca starting Thursday’s game. However, Rebraca played a combined 23 minutes in Iowa’s final games against Purdue last season, with many of the remaining minutes going either to Ogundele or to one of the Murray brothers at the five. Given Ogundele’s lingering health issues, fans should not be surprised to see a much bigger dose of small-ball in this game than they have in many recent matchups.