INDIANAPOLIS — The way John Adams sees it every time he watches a Purdue men’s basketball game, and the way he says it so bluntly, no hesitation, is this: “Zach Edey gets the living crap beat out of him.”
But the former NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating goes on to say: “At 7-4, 300-plus pounds, guys just bounce off of him.”
And therein lies the seemingly unsolvable conundrum for officials blowing the whistle for, or against, the Herculean Edey.
“It’s what we call ‘art versus science,'” said Bo Boroski, who spent two decades as a Division I official before retiring in 2022 after three straight Final Fours. Boroski made plenty of on-court judgments as Edey posted up. And as he made those calls, he kept two things top of mind.
“The science. It is the letter of the law. If you do this, then this happens, no other considerations,” Boroski said. “And the art. It is a feel for the game, understanding what has impact. I always tried to use both.”
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Like when a 5-11 guy whacked Edey’s forearm as he went up for a monstrous dunk, and pounded it through the rim. Was that illegal contact or merely incidental?
There is a fine line officials have to walk when it comes to true fives, true post players, true back-to-the-basket centers. Edey is a dying breed in basketball, said Adams, and that is a liability for him on the court.
“Edey is penalized,” he said, “for being one of the last true centers.”
‘It cannot be held against Edey that he is 7-4’
Purdue coach Matt Painter seems to agree, though he declined an interview with IndyStar for this story. In January, Painter spoke out after a Purdue win over Maryland, in which the team “used multiple players to enter the game to beat and bang with the Boilermakers’ 7-foot-4 center,” the Journal & Courier wrote.
“All the egregious chucks, grabs, all those things, they’ve got to be called and it’s got to be called every time,” Painter said. “I think the officials don’t want to call it every single time because on most scenarios people aren’t going to do that, but since (Edey’s) such a tough cover, that’s what keeps happening.”
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The officials are the ones who hold the power, who get to decide whether that elbow or hook from an opponent on Edey rises to the level of illegal contact, especially when Edey uses his monstrous body to fight through and make the basket.
“It cannot be held against Zach Edey that he is 7-4. If he takes illegal contact, it should be a foul,” said Boroski. “With that said, you should also take into account all other variables that go into the decision-making process.”‘
And that is where the art comes in.
“These are massive human beings,” Boroski said. “There’s a proportionate aspect to this because if I were to push somebody that was 5-8 with the same force I would push somebody that is 7-4, it may have no negative outcome or effect on the 7-4 person. That’s what we have to differentiate.”
Sometimes, the science says it was a foul. Sometimes, the art says it wasn’t. And vice versa depending which end of the court the whistle is blowing.
“Unfortunately for people the size of Zach, they do take a ton more contact than their teammates,” Boroski said. “Because it takes more contact to have an impact.”
With Edey, says former official J.D. Collins, “You have to look at, instead of the size of players, ‘Do they gain an advantage?'”
“We look at the physical act that happens on the floor and determine if there was displacement,” said Collins, who officiated for two decades, including two Final Fours, an Elite Eight and five Sweet Sixteens. “If you’ve got two, 300- pound, 6-10 players both pushing on each other, the art of the game says ‘physically, there is not necessarily a foul.'”
But when one player displaces the other, the call might change.
“When you look at any very big man, sometimes them just moving on the court because the person guarding them is smaller, they move too,” said Collins, who retired as the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating in 2022. “It doesn’t necessarily displace them in a physical way. It’s a very fine line determining what is a displacement versus gaining an advantage.”
A fine line, especially, when it comes to Edey, the most monstrous college basketball star in the game.
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‘Zach gets Shaq treatment’
Edey declined an interview request for this story through a spokesman who said, understandably, “we are going to politely decline that story idea. No good can come from us talking about referees.”
The 7-0, 284-pound Greg Oden stepped in to explain what it feels like to be Edey on the court.
“Being a big, you kind of think it’s unfair,” said Oden, a former Lawrence North High and Ohio State star and NBA player. “It’s weird just always being so much bigger and more empowering and imposing. It just feels like the kind of force they can give you, if you give even a fraction of that force back, it’s not going to be good.”
Not good, a foul. And then, on the other end of the court, there is the “everyday beating,” Oden said.
“Zach gets Shaq treatment,” he said. “Everybody is just beating up on him the entire game and, sometimes, he probably doesn’t even feel it. But he’s probably in the training room getting his back looked at the next day.”
Oden, who is now director of basketball operations at Butler, said he found ways to overcome his size as he played.
“I know NBA guys would just scream or flail their hands,” he said. “My thing was just try to play through it. No good is going to come out of complaining to the refs. Go through the contact, try to make the basket and if you do get a foul, that’s a bonus.”
Boroski said he agrees with Oden in most cases. But sometimes, the bonus is not calling the foul.
“If Zach turns to the basket and takes a little bit of contact that I don’t deem to be illegal, it didn’t quite rise to illegal and I let him lay it in, I did him a favor,” Boroski said. “I could have blown the whistle on that, waved off the bucket and who have I really penalized? I’ve penalized Purdue and Zach Edey.”
Whether the whistle is blown or not, Edey made clear in January after the Maryland game, what he believes is taking place on the court. “I get fouled every possession,” he said.
“I think a lot of people know that. They’ll have two hands on my back. They’ll have a knee up my butt. Those are just fouls. They put all their body weight on me. That’s a foul,” Edey said. “I am strong enough, I can handle it. They can’t call a foul every possession, so it’s something I have to just deal with it.”
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‘No one knows how to handle it’
Edey shouldn’t have to “just deal with it,” said Adams. “Officiating true post play is the most inconsistently officiated part of the (NCAA men’s college basketball) game.”
People ask Adams all the time his opinions about officiating Edey.
“Here is the thing I tell people. I was on the road four games a week, 17 or 18 weeks for seven years (as NCAA officiating coordinator),” he said. “I went to every game, sat under the basket and I don’t know what’s a foul and what’s not in the low block. I think it changes by the minute, not by the game.”
The real problem is how few college teams have true back-to-the-basket fives. “Almost no teams do. Purdue does,” Adams said. “No one knows how to handle it.”
As the Big Ten Tournament plays out this week — followed by the NCAA tourney — plenty of players and fans and coaches will complain about the officiating, including the calls for or against Edey.
But Collins has a stat he’d like those people to hear: In 67 games of the NCAA tournament in 2022, officials were correct 96.02% of the time when blowing the whistle, he said. When calls are added in that should have had a whistle blown, officials were successful 93% of the time.
“I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy to be right about anything 93% of the time,” Collins said. “And people yell at us like we were 50-50.”
Adams says the best skill an official can have when reffing big men like Edey is consistency.
“A foul is a foul,” he said. “If you’re calling that foul one minute in then you’re calling it with one minute to go. Otherwise, every time the official tries to play God, they don’t do very well.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @Dana Benbow. Reach her via e-mail: [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Purdue’s Zach Edey: How NCAA officials call fouls (or not) on big men