Zach Edey vs. Donovan Clingan is the big-man showdown college basketball deserves

Follow live coverage as UConn, Purdue play for the national championship today

GLENDALE, Ariz. — During a quiet beat in the national anthem before Purdue played at Illinois on March 5, someone in the crowd screamed loud enough for everyone else to hear: “F— Zach Edey!” Boilermakers assistant Brandon Brantley and director of operations Elliot Bloom looked at each other and mouthed, “Thank you.” They knew what was coming. A poked bear proceeded to maul the Illini: 28 points, eight boards, three assists, two blocks and a steal in a 77-71 road win over the second-best team in the Big Ten.

“When he was younger, I’d tell him, ‘Oh, that big guy, he’s my favorite in the league. He’s the best in the league,’” Brantley said. “He’d look at me like, What? I’d tell him, ‘Hey, there’s a package in my office. (Maryland center) Julian Reese sent you roses.’ It’s harder now, because he knows how good he is.”

There just aren’t many big men left who anyone could consider a legitimate threat to Edey, the 7-foot-4, 300-pound, two-time national player of the year. There were supposed to be two of them here at the Final Four, but Edey swatted away the first — NC State’s dancing bear, DJ Burns Jr. — in the semifinals Saturday night. Fittingly, the final boss is the next-best center in America: Connecticut’s 7-foot-2, 280-pound Donovan Clingan.

On Monday night, it’s Big Maple vs. Cling Kong for a national championship.

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer said Sunday, in part because both gentle giants find their inner maniac when their supremacy is challenged. “Zach likes that. You saw it the other day with DJ Burns. The media hyped him up — rightfully so, he’s a great player, same with Clingan. It’s no disrespect to any of them. It’s just how much work Zach’s put in, how determined he is to win a national championship. You can kind of see it in the look in his eyes. You see that sometimes before the games.

“He’s got the dead stare. If I’m on the other team, I don’t want to see that from him, because obviously back-to-back national player of the year — he’s going to get the job done.”

But Clingan will have something to say about that. After spending last season backing up star center Adama Sanogo and a good portion of this season dealing with foot injuries, Clingan is finally healthy and fully engaged. During the Big East tournament, coach Dan Hurley called him a “Jolly Green Giant,” and said the Huskies needed him to be more like another famous super-sized green guy: the Hulk.

“He’s got to get that intensity level up, get that nastiness,” Hurley said then. “He’s such a sweetheart of a guy (but) when Donovan turns it up, he impacts the game like few players in the country.”

Narrator: He turned it up for this NCAA Tournament.

Clingan has been a dominant force throughout UConn’s run to a second straight national championship game. He almost single-handedly wrecked Illinois in the Elite Eight — the poor Illini, always playing the part of helpless skyscraper getting reduced to rubble by a behemoth — and when he decided to Hulk-smash Alabama late in the semifinals Saturday, it was game over.

“Realizing what’s at stake, that every team is going to bring their best, bring everything they got, you just gotta play more physical, gotta play nastier, gotta try to be a force out there,” Clingan said. With Edey up next — it’s the first time Clingan can ever remember facing a player bigger than him — there will be no trouble flipping the switch again. “You realize the matchup you have, you realize what’s in front of you, and it just makes you want to go even harder. Makes you want to play even better.”

What this NCAA Tournament has lacked in buzzer-beaters, it’s more than made up for with these two aircraft-carrier-sized buzzsaws.

And in the process, although seemingly everything else is changing in modern college basketball, their play has reaffirmed the importance of back-to-the-basket ballers.

“People tried to kind of discount that and act like it wasn’t important for a while,” Edey said. “But being able to rebound, being able to protect the paint, being able to score inside, having that post presence is an important thing in basketball. I think you kind of saw that in this tournament.”

Edey, obviously, has been Purdue’s North Star all season, practically sleepwalking into nightly double-doubles. There’s a reason he’s the first player since Ralph Sampson in the early 1980s — fittingly, another 7-foot-4 unicorn — to win consecutive Wooden Awards. In the Boilermakers’ 13-point Final Four win over NC State, Edey had a team-best 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks … and a day later, assessed that outing as if he’d posted a goose egg: “I didn’t have my best game.” For the analytically-inclined, Edey has been named KenPom’s game MVP in 29 of Purdue’s 38 contests this season, including all five in the Big Dance. Yawn.

“This is a different animal,” Hurley said of Edey, despite the countless other quality centers the Huskies have seen this season. “You may coach or play your whole career and never coach or play against somebody of his stature.”

Which is why, despite the NBA’s movement away from paint-patrolling centers, Edey is still projected to be a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.

And so is Clingan, whose dominance comes in a different shape but is no less smothering. If Edey’s most elite skill is his hook-shot heroics, then Clingan’s is his defensive prowess, how he uses his reported 7-foot-7 wingspan to form a force field around the hoop. Clingan hasn’t played a single 30-minute game this NCAA Tournament — nor does he need to, given UConn’s 25-point average margin of victory — but in the Huskies’ last four games? He’s posted an unbelievable 18 blocks, including four against Alabama’s No. 1-ranked offense in the Final Four. All of which is to say, in the NCAA Tournament especially Cling Kong has evolved into the final boss version of himself. Per CBB Analytics, since the Big Dance began, Clingan has averaged a team-best 16.2 points, 9 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, and 1.8 assists per game, despite only playing 24.4 minutes a night.

“He’s really,” said Purdue’s Trey Kaufman-Renn, “kind of the motor that makes UConn run.”

Basketball, of course, is still a team game, even if everyone who crowds into State Farm Stadium on Monday night would probably be just as pleased to watch Edey and Clingan face off in a game of one-on-one. Still: with each team’s backcourt stars — All-America guard Tristen Newton for UConn, and All-Big Ten guard Braden Smith for Purdue — Edey and Clingan are the suns around which everyone else orbits.

You cannot reasonably hope to stop either one … but you have to at least slow them some to have any chance of cutting down the nets.

Painter, as advanced and sophisticated a coach as any in the country, has not always played this way. In 2019 — when he came within one miracle Kihei Clark pass and Mamadi Diakite floater of his first Final Four — his Boilermakers instead played through guard Carsen Edwards, a scintillating scorer and two-time All-American.

And that can work. It did. But for as much as guard play wins in March, Painter realized that he also needed some muscle to get Purdue back to a place it hadn’t been since 1980.

“We scoured the earth for size,” Painter said. “We try to go out there and get it because it’s proven, if you can work with it.”

And Purdue has, crafting its entire offense around the Big Maple; Edey is now the first national leading scorer to make the Final Four since Oscar Robertson in 1960, further validating Painter’s philosophy.

It’s no different with Hurley and how he valued Clingan. For as valuable an addition as Cam Spencer was out of the transfer portal, for as critical as Stephon Castle’s emergence has been the second half of this season, it’s Clingan’s versatility that allows those other Huskies to showcase their best. “Maybe our most impactful player,” Hurley said, validating what the metrics already spell out. Clingan has the highest on-off differential on UConn’s roster, per CBB Analytics; the Huskies score 20.1 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor … while also allowing 15.3 fewer points per 100 possessions.

So, just your average, everyday 35.4-point differential caliber of player.

It’s no shocker the hype surrounding this matchup is almost as lofty as these two centers’ sight lines.

Print your fight-style posters, create your monster-movie graphics. It’s all warranted.

“It’s going to be a beautiful duel,” said Purdue’s Mason Gillis. “Best man wins.”

(Top photo: Bob Donnan and Richard Deutsch / USA Today)

First appeared on

Leave a Comment