How Vols are officiated against Edey will be crucial in Final Four quest

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee was physical with Purdue senior center Zach Edey, and the 7-foot-4, 300-pounder was physical with the Volunteers when the Boilermakers prevailed 71-67 at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee was physical with Purdue senior center Zach Edey, and the 7-foot-4, 300-pounder was physical with the Volunteers when the Boilermakers prevailed 71-67 at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21.

Tennessee is living among the land of 7-footers these days in the NCAA tournament, and now the Volunteers get to face the most recognized one of them all.

For the Vols to finally cross into basketball's promised land with their first Final Four in program history, they must take down Purdue and 7-foot-4, 300-pound center Zach Edey. The reigning winner of the Naismith and Wooden awards, given to the player of the year, is averaging 24.6 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 62.4% from the floor.

"You appreciate when someone gets better the way he has," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Saturday afternoon in a news conference. "He's gotten better and better every year. We like to think we can get guys tired, but I think he moves extremely well. He knows exactly on the court where he wants to get his space and where he wants to set up, and they do a great job of getting it to him when he gets there.

"The first time we played them, he missed a lot of free throws, and I wish he would do that again, but there were a lot of fouls in that game. I think they shot 48 free throws. We shot a bunch, too."

Sunday's showdown between the Boilermakers (32-4), who are seeded first in the Midwest Regional, and second-seeded Tennessee (27-8) is set for 2:20 p.m. on CBS.

The Vols advanced into their second Elite Eight appearance ever with an 82-75 downing of Creighton that ended early Saturday morning inside Detroit's Little Caesars Arena. The Bluejays possess 7-1, 270-pound center Ryan Kalkbrenner, who tallied 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds but missed two layups and committed a turnover as Tennessee was on its decisive 18-0 run early in the second half.

Kalkbrenner is a nice college player, but Edey is bigger and better.

Round one between Purdue and Tennessee took place Nov. 21 in a Maui Invitational semifinal, with the Boilermakers prevailing 71-67. Tennessee led 31-30 at halftime, and a Jordan Gainey 3-pointer with 3:07 remaining pulled the Vols into a 64-64 deadlock before Purdue broke free.

Edey scored 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting and could have added more were it not for a 9-of-17 showing at the free-throw line. The top two post players for the Vols, junior forward Jonas Aidoo (6-11, 240) and sophomore forward Tobe Awaka (6-8, 250), both fouled out after combining for just 25 minutes of playing time.

The Vols were outrebounded 44-31, and they were whistled for 30 fouls compared to 21 for the Boilermakers.

"Going back and looking at that tape last night, both teams have improved a lot since then," Barnes said. "It was a really hard-fought game over there, and a lot of fouls were called in the game. I don't think there will be that many called here.

"Based on the way this tournament is being called, about half of those fouls wouldn't have been called, I can assure you of that."

That Barnes referenced the officiating on multiple occasions Saturday probably wasn't by accident, as Edey entered this NCAA tournament drawing 9.7 fouls per game, which according to The Athletic is the highest rate in the last six seasons. Mississippi State senior center Tolu Smith, who caused significant problems for Tennessee in Starkville during the regular season and Nashville during the Southeastern Conference tournament, led the SEC with 6.8 fouls drawn per game.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins was ejected at Purdue on Jan. 31 after entering the court to complain about Edey attempting 17 free throws compared to eight for his entire team.

"They can't just let me get to spots and let me get my shots, so it's in every team's game plan to play physical with me," Edey said Saturday. "When you play physical, fouls are just kind of part of the game and part of the game plan. There's nothing I can really do to change it."

Aidoo fouled out this season when facing Edey, North Carolina's Armando Bacot, Smith in the contest at Mississippi State, and Auburn's Johni Broome. Awaka fouled out guarding Edey and against Smith in Starkville.

"Our SEC play has given Jonas and Tobe a lot of experience to guard a lot of really good post players," Vols fifth-year senior guard Josiah-Jordan James said. "I think that's something we didn't have when we played them the first time. It's easier said than done, but I think they're really getting a lot better at positioning themselves, pushing the bigs off the block and making sure they're physical but without fouling."

While the Vols have an obvious focus on Purdue's 7-4 giant from Toronto, the Boilermakers are wary of Tennessee 5-9 point guard Zakai Zeigler. The matchup in Maui was just the fifth game of the season for Zeigler, who was building his minutes after coming back from a torn ACL.

"He was kind of hesitant then and wasn't really himself," James said. "He's playing his best basketball right now."

Vescovi update

Vols fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi missed Friday's Sweet 16 triumph with the flu but is hopeful of competing Sunday afternoon. He has been attending team meetings via Zoom.

"I want to play," Vescovi told reporters Saturday. "I want to be with the guys. The flu has been kicking my tail, but we'll see how I feel out there. I'm going to do everything I can."

Tennessee's top eight players have been available for 278 of a possible 280 games this season, with the only absences being Awaka at North Carolina on Nov. 29 due to an ankle injury and Vescovi on Friday.

Odds and ends

Tennessee went 4-1 this season against teams in the Elite Eight, defeating Alabama twice and Illinois and N.C. State once while losing to Purdue. ... Friday's victory over Creighton gave Barnes his ninth NCAA tournament triumph with the Vols, breaking the eight he shared with Bruce Pearl for the most in program history. ... Tennessee has three seasons of at least 27 wins under Barnes after producing two before his arrival in 2015.

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