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Purdue’s supporting cast helps set table for March Madness

Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer (2) falls as he drives around New Orleans guard Jordan Johnson (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

(AP) — Purdue stuck to a simple game plan this season: Feed the ball to All-American Zach Edey and let the 7-foot-4 center feast in the post.

The old-school philosophy defied today’s trendy, small-ball style heavy on the 3-pointer attack but it allowed the Boilermakers to ascend to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 twice this season.

Coach Matt Painter’s squad needed more than just Edey to claim its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2009. If the East Region’s top seed wants to avoid another earlier-than-expected NCAA tourney exit, Purdue’s supporting cast must supplement Edey’s medley in the middle.

“We have a lot of guys who could go to a different team and average a lot of points, be on all-Big Ten teams or whatever, but they’re happy we’re here,” Edey said Sunday. “We have a lot of guys who love winning. That’s what Purdue is.”

The regular-season Big Ten champions are no one-man band. At No. 3 Purdue (29-5), the talent pool runs deep — and everybody has a role.

Freshman guards Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer have started all season after finishing first and second in last year’s IndyStar Mr. Basketball Award voting, just like teammates Caleb Furst and Trey Kaufman-Renn did in 2021.

Loyer is the smooth, polished shooter, the son of an NBA coach who averages 10.9 points per game. Smith is the confident, gritty guy who basks in driving opponents and their fans bonkers. He’s also scores 9.8 per game.

“We all can shoot, we knew that coming into the season,” Smith said last weekend. “Early on, we haven’t shot it well but we’re starting to figure it out.”

The Boilermakers’ rotation has a flavor for everyone.

Ethan Morton earned a starting job this year because he’s a defensive stopper though he previously seemed comfortable being the high-scoring Pennsylvania prep star who earned the state’s Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year awards in 2019-20.

Guard David Jenkins Jr., a 24-year-old veteran, compiled more than 1,800 points at three schools, earning all-conference honors in two leagues before coming to Purdue. He is 11 points shy of 2,000.

Beefy forward Mason Gillis was an Indiana Junior All-Star and one of the state’s top baseball players before a knee injury cost him his senior high school season. He helps Purdue play physical, but he’s also a skilled shooter as Rutgers discovered when he went 7 of 8 in last week’s quarterfinal win and Penn State learned when he made a career-high nine 3-pointers in February.

“You’ve got to do something right?” perplexed Nittany Lions coach Micah Shrewsberry said after that 20-point loss. “But Zach beat us up in the paint so badly the last time … it’s also about how you construct the team. You have the most dominant player in college basketball, and you put guys around him that fit perfectly.”

Few have devised a solution this season and now Purdue has its first No. 1 seed since 1996.

Perhaps nobody appreciates the contributions or sacrifices Edey’s teammates have made better than Painter, who grew up in Indiana a fan of the rival Hoosiers but was never recruited by Bob Knight even after making the 1989 Indiana All-Star team.

Instead, Painter was overshadowed by others at Purdue— Steve Scheffler, Woody Austin and Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson, the focal point of the 1992-93 team many also dubbed a one-man show.

Clearly, Painter didn’t construct this roster by happenstance.

“In recruiting I just tell them, if you become one of our top two or three scorers, here’s how we’ll use you. If you don’t, you’re going to play a role,” Painter said. “But you’ve got to have people that will play roles, and that’s really it’s a tip of the hat to those guys.”

Now as Painter and the Boilermakers wait to see who they play Friday in Columbus, Ohio — either Texas Southern (14-20) or Fairleigh Dickinson (19-15) — the hope is that this NCAA trip won’t end like some other recent ones.

Purdue has been to the Sweet 16 four times in its last five tourney appearances but has only advanced to the Elite Eight once. There have also been three first-round exits since 2015.

To achieve their first taste of the Final Four since Joe Barry Carroll took them in 1980, Purdue’s complementary players need to produce alonside Edey. Painter knows people will watch to see if the Boilermakers “overdo” their talented big man.

“I just think we have good balance,” Painter said. “I always talk about everybody’s going to have to sacrifice to be able to win big, and then if you win big collectively, you get individual honors. When you win a championship by three games, I would hope people can kind of open their eyes to it.”