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Final Four road for Purdue began with look in the mirror and decision to stay the course

DETROIT (AP) — Instead of rebuilding via the transfer portal or overhauling the roster with some splashy NIL deals when its season came to an embarrassing halt last year, Purdue looked straight in the mirror.

Even after a loss that made them a laughingstock, the Boilermakers pretty much liked what they saw.

The result is a trip to the Final Four for a program that has dealt with change in the sport — to say nothing of its reputation as an underachiever as a team — mostly by sticking with what's worked, and sometimes hasn't, for the better part of the last 50 years.

The Boilermakers beat Tennessee 72-66 on Sunday to make their first Final Four since 1980. The win came a year and two weeks after Purdue became only the second No. 1 seed to fall in the first round of March Madness.

The headliner was 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, who came back for his senior season after last year's disappointment. Sticking with it fits in nicely for a program whose roots reach down into the bedrock. Purdue has had two coaches over the last 44 seasons — Gene Keady, who was in the stands for this one, and Matt Painter, who is in his 19th season in West Lafayette.

“We’re systematic, and we evolve with our system,” Painter explained. “We evolve towards the strength of our best players. I think it’s a big fallacy in recruiting because everybody wants to play shortstop and lead off, but you’ve got one shortstop, and if Cal Ripken is there, he’s probably not going to get moved.”

Currently, Edey is Purdue's Cal Ripken.

Whether his last college game is Saturday against North Carolina State or next Monday in the final against UConn or Alabama, chances are Purdue won't be searching far and wide for a new headliner. Sure, the past three years in college basketball have been splattered with big headlines about huge roster shakeups and NIL deals worth millions.

Painter viewed it as a point of pride that he's only picked up two transfers in four years. (One of whom was Lance Jones, a somewhat quiet signing last offseason who has averaged 12 points a game.)

“I sign a lot of guys in the fall, and I stay out of the spring,” Painter said of the time when transfers find new teams. “The spring stinks. It's all these guys are talking about. I'm not.”

It's one thing to stand on principle. Quite another to win that way.

Purdue's style of winning this season speaks volumes about this school's near complete disregard for fitting in.

Edey, with his back-to-the-basket post game is considered a dinosaur in the modern game. He is the reigning AP Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American in 2024 and leads the nation in scoring. His value in the pros? Shaky, mainly because the NBA has turned to analytics and the value of the 3-pointer over grinding inside play.

Purdue views Edey in a different way. To the coach, Edey is a player, and a style, that nobody quite knows how to handle anymore. A stout defensive team like Tennessee might have had the best chance, but ultimately, it ran into the same issues that plague everyone: Foul trouble, frustration and fatigue after leaning on a guy who outweighs everyone by 70 pounds or more.

“In terms of greatness in a player, he’s very unselfish,” said Painter, who compared Edey to his own contemporary, Glenn Robinson. “So if you just get to your spots and stay with what you’re doing and they just come and get him, now we’re playing H-O-R-S-E. If they don’t, we want him to be aggressive and score.”

Edey has averaged 30 points and 16.8 rebounds over four games in the tournament.

Taking all this in from the stands Sunday afternoon was Keady.

He's 87 years old now, and was the one who recruited Painter to Purdue. That was around 35 years ago when Keady was still getting his footing and the thought that he would never coach in a Final Four over what would become a Hall of Fame 25 years with the Boilermakers seemed impossible.

Painter said he grew up an Indiana fan, so going to the Hoosiers archrival never seemed like a move for him. Then, the recruiters started visiting. Most told him what he wanted to hear. Keady told him he'd need to get a summer job so he could learn what it meant to have to get up every morning and learn what it was like to work.

Painter talked it over with his dad.

“He said ‘That’s the only person who told you the truth. You need him way more than he needs you,'" Painter recalled.

It came as no surprise, then, to hear Keady's takeaway after Purdue earned its first trip to the Final Four since the Carter Administration.

In a phone call with the AP after Edey had cut down the net and handed him a piece of twine, the coach said, “It shows people if you do things the right way, it will pay off.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness