NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional Championship-Tennessee vs Purdue

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It's easy for Zach Edey now. Or at least easier for a big man who was once too large for Halloween.

"I got banned from trick or treating in fourth grade because people got mad at me because I was too big," Purdue's 7-foot-4 All-American post said Thursday in the run up to the Final Four. "Not banned, but I'd get the little stink eyes. I was like, six foot, going door-to-door."

On a tradition built around the delights of children, fourth-grade Zach looked too much like an adult. You don't have to imagine much past the dirty looks to figure out those optics.

Now at the top of his game, and the world, many would suggest Edey has zipped right past being too big for his age all the way to being superhuman. He has a bit of company this week. 

Going into this historic Final Four, Edey might as well be the master of ceremonies, the keynote speaker for the college game's newest topic: The big man is back. How's the weather up there? Take a look around State Farm Stadium for an answer to that cruel grade-school question asked of every player whose height has outstripped his age.

Edey is joined in this bracket by 7-2 UConn post Donovan Clingan and NC State's 6-9 post DJ Burns Jr. Their games are centered around playing like … centers. You know, old school. Throw the ball into the middle and let things happen. 

In a game that has been guard-centric for decades, good, old-fashioned basketball Darwinism has broken out. Natural selection has fought back. Tall and strong is beating quick and swift.

That's a generalization but so is making fun of a kid like Edey who was 6-10 in the eighth grade.

"When you have a dominant big man who can really play it's a cheat code," Purdue forward Mason Gillis said. "That's what I call Zach -- a cheat code."

Something has changed in the college game. According to CBS Sports research, the 36 7-footers averaging at least 20 minutes in Division I this season is tied for the most in the last 25 years. The eight that played for top 25 teams is the most in the last 15 years. 

There are six who are averaging at least 16 points, the most in the last 25 seasons. They are:

In one sense, there is a reason 7-footers went away in the college game. All the best ones got to the NBA as soon as possible. The economics of modern college athletics may have leveled that out.

"With NIL it's become more appealing to stay," said former Purdue star Robbie Hummel. "You can make money here now."

There are simply less 7 footers in the human race to begin with. They make up approximately .000038% of the population. 

But when the game became quicker, with the point guard becoming all-important, big men became even less salient. Consider that the last 7-footer to average at least 20 points to win a national championship was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969 when he was known as Lew Alcindor at UCLA

The last 7-footer to average at least 16 points for a national champion was Georgetown's Patrick Ewing in 1984.

The last 7-footer to lead a national champion in scoring was North Carolina's Eric Montross in 1993. 

"It shows that it's back in college for sure," Edey said. "People always talk about how big men can't do it in March, big men can't push through in March. There's three teams that have really good big men [in the Final Four]. It's an important role for sure."

Clingan (12.9 points, 7.5 rebounds) has been a steady consistent force in the middle for a team that is the sum of its parts. Guard Tristen Newton is the All-American star of the Huskies who are trying to win consecutive national titles. But all five starters average in double figures. 

"Not bad for honorable mention all-Big East," UConn coach Dan Hurley of Clingan with a bit of snark in his voice. 

Burns isn't 7 feet but he's the roly poly face of this Final Four. At 6-9 he plays bigger. Part of him looks like he was plucked out of a high school gym class to try out for basketball because of his size. The reality is more. The Wolfpack are basically here because Burns scored a season-high 29 in the Elite Eight win over Duke. 

Not bad for an honorable mention all-ACC.

"He doesn't bully you," NC State coach Kevin Keatts said of Burns. "He just goes around. He wills around you."

When Keatts' assistants said they needed to go find the next DJ Burns Jr in the portal, he stopped them in their tracks.

"I'm like, 'You're not going to find DJ Burns anywhere else,' Keatts added. "Lefty, great touch, tremendous personality. Doesn't really catch the ball in the post, but he ends up around the basket. I don't know that there's been a guy like that before.

"The guards get so mad at him because they don't get assists because he dribbles six times to get where he needs to be. He's a throwback."

Also, perhaps a preview. The biggest knock on Edey is that he doesn't "fit" the modern NBA, which is a 3-point parade. The two most prominent big men – 6-11 Nikola Jokic and 7-footer Joel Embiid – run the floor and are known for their spectacular athleticism. 

"In the last 10-15 years, it is more of an open post game …," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "There's always a trickle down to the college game from the pro game." 

But Edey is that classic back-to-basket type. Perhaps 20 years ago he would have been the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. Now?

"Those guys [Clingan and Edey] can play in the pros," said Alabama assistant Ryan Pannone. "There's a spot for both of them. They may not be every coach's cup of tea. They may not be every team's cup of tea … There's always a place in the NBA for really talented people that bring a skill set that are really hard workers and really good people. People don't understand this about the NBA but character matters. Zach Edey's character is really high."

Pannone has extensive experience in both the NBA and in Europe. We've gone this far without mentioning one of the best matchups of Saturday's UConn-Alabama semifinal. Bama has 6-11 post Grant Nelson, the former Summit League Player of the Year at North Dakota State

"You can't test him," Alabama guard Latrell Wrightsell said of Clingan.

Bama will have to at some point. UConn is No. 1 in kenpom adjusted offensive efficiency. Alabama is No. 3. 

In this case, the evolution has been televised. Edey's work ethic emerged behind closed doors. His Toronto-based trainer, Joshua Lipsey, has been working with the big man since Edey was coming out of IMG Academy as an ungainly 7-2 three-star prospect. 

"He did not pass the eye test," Lipsey told CBS Sports. "He had the moppy-like Beatles cut. Scouts came and saw him – some pretty big ones – he didn't pass the eye test. Long wingspan. Tons of potential. [But it was like] 'Are you insane, dude? Even at IMG he didn't play that much.' "  

Edey just needed time, transitioning rather late in his youth from baseball to basketball. During COVID-19, with Canada in strict lockdown, Lipsey trained Edey via phone. 

"He Facetimes me from his basement," Lipsey said. "The problem is the ceiling is 6-7, 6-8. He's crouching down. I was training nine collegiate guys [at the time]. He was the only one saying, 'No, I want to get better.' They were playing video games."

While Painter chases a championship, he has already seen the future. He is old enough (53) to remember a time when the NBA was more back-to-the-basket. 

"Unless we can get 2-3 players who are the best players in the world that are built like [Edey] and look like him [we might be in trouble]," he said. "Arvydas Sabonis, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, if they're the best players in the NBA [in their day], you gotta have people to guard them. That's going to bring the big man back more."