How UConn masterfully baited Purdue and Zach Edey into a math problem en route to its second national title

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Purdue star Zach Edey won the battle of the big men in Monday night’s national championship game, but UConn center Donovan Clingan and his Huskies ultimately won the war. The 2023 champs strategically picked apart the Boilermakers with a defensive game plan so sound it made Purdue abandon one of its most potent weapons, the 3-point shot, and in the process scored a 75-60 win inside State Farm Stadium to become the first repeat title winners since Florida in 2007.

UConn could have helped Clingan handle the Naismith Player of the Year in the post. Instead, it allowed Clingan and Samson Johnson to go head-to-head with the 7-4 giant. Purdue, which entered the game second in the country in shooting 40.6% from 3, finished 1-for-7 from beyond the arc on the day. UConn cut off the shot menu almost entirely by daring Edey and his team to feast on a heavy diet of mid-range jumpers and Edey hook shots in one-on-one situations.

Purdue’s seven 3-point attempts was the fewest by a team in the title game since UConn in 1999 and the fewest by any team in this year’s tournament. Its one made 3-point shot tied for the fewest in a national title game. 

“We didn’t want to give up 3s,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said. “We didn’t care if Zach took 25, 28 shots to get 30, 35 points. This whole game plan was, like, no (Braden) Smith, no (Fletcher) Loyer, no (Mason) Gillis, no (Lance) Jones. Keep that collective group under 18, 20 points. They had no chance to win, no matter how well Zach played.”

It came down to a math problem for Purdue. It could shoot 40+ percent from the field — which it did — and still lose by 15 — again, which it did! — if UConn effectively wiped the 3-point shot from Purdue’s arsenal. Edey had 37 points and finished 15-of-25 shooting. But one made 3 from Purdue as a team put the Boilermakers in a position to try and play a losing numbers game. It engaged in that game and lost.

Take the first points of the game from Edey as an example. On its face, two points on a hook shot from Edey is Purdue’s bread and butter — and this is seemingly a win for the two-time player of the year. But check the strategy here: UConn doesn’t send help down to the post and lets Edey shoot inside the paint, opting instead to focus on remaining attached to the shooters surrounding the perimeter.

Tristen Newton, who was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 20 points and added seven assists and five rebounds, said he felt the defensive game plan worked to perfection. The goal was to limit 3-point attempts and to stay home on all shooters. That meant Clingan had to carry a big lift as the primary defender for Edey in one-on-one situations in the paint, but defending on an island also meant that good 3-point shooters for Purdue wouldn’t be turned loose with high frequency.

“[Purdue] gets its 3-pointers off when people go down there and help on Edey,” Newton said. “They did a great job planning and made sure it was a focus that we didn’t leave the three-point line and let Edey do his damage. He only shoots 2s. He doesn’t shoot 3s. If he makes 15 2s like he did today, that’s 30. Where are the rest of the points going to come from?”

Good question. The answer: Braden Smith had 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting, Lance Jones had five points on 2-of-3 shooting, Trey Kaufman-Renn had four points on four shots and Cam Heide had two spectacular points off an incredible putback. That was it. And the only 3-pointer Purdue made came late in the shot clock from Smith off what Hurley called a “late clock mistake.”

That meant that Purdue had to take what it was given. And in this case, the Boilermakers’ best player taking 25 shots may have ultimately been to their own demise.

“We were one-dimensional because of how good Zach Edey is,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We were comfortable going to him, right? We were comfortable continuing to do that. That’s what they’re giving you.”

“They’re a great defensive team,” he added. “So they just made a decision, like, we can defend the perimeter and we can take this away from you, then you’re just going to get the ball to your best player, he’s going to be one on one, then that’s that.”

Painter seemed content with his team’s ability to remain poised despite being forced to be one-dimensional on offense. But feeding Edey in the paint and settling for shots inside the arc ultimately played right into UConn’s hands. More shots inside the arc for Purdue meant more bodies and more length to contest for UConn and it reduced the chance of the Boilermakers heating up from deep to go on any type of run. Once UConn gained control it retained control and slowly squeezed the life out of its opponent. 

On a night dominated by UConn and in a season dominated by its offense, which finished No. 1 in adjusted efficiency ratings at KenPom, it’s only fitting that the best team won with a superior effort from its defense to clinch this year’s tournament title in the same fashion it has won all season long.

“Obviously, what could you say?” Hurley said. “We won by a lot — again.”

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