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March Madness masterpiece: All-Americans Edey of Purdue and Tennessee’s Knecht face off in Elite 8

DETROIT (AP) — Zach Edey and Dalton Knecht, perhaps college basketball’s biggest stars this side of Caitlin Clark, will be on the same court Sunday, each with a chance to lift their school to an elusive trip to the Final Four.

The top two vote-getters on the men’s AP All-America team will face off when top-seeded Purdue (32-4) plays second-seeded Tennessee (27-8) in the only regional final pitting the top two seeds.

“Both teams really, they’re more than just the main event that you’re talking about,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said Saturday. “Those guys, they deserved every honor that they’ve gotten. But both of them would tell you, that they would defer to their teammates for helping them get what they’ve gotten done.”

The Boilermakers and Volunteers met four months ago, and the result was familiar for most teams that have tried defend the 7-foot-4, 300-pound Edey.

Edey had 23 points and 10 rebounds — one of his 27 double-doubles this season — despite being in foul trouble. He corralled seven of Purdue’s 17 offensive rebounds in a four-point win over Tennessee in the Maui Invitational.

That victory, one of a school-record 32 earned by Matt Painter’s squad, won’t be of much consolation if the Boilermakers don’t break through with their first trip to the Final Four since 1980, when Lee Rose was the coach and Joe Barry Carroll was their best player.

Gene Keady followed the next season and did enough to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, winning six conference championships in 25 seasons. But he went 0 for 2 in the Elite Eight.

Painter is desperately hoping not to go 0 for 2, too, in regional finals. The last time the five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year had a team on the brink of the Final Four was in 2019, when the Boilermakers were outlasted in overtime by eventual-champion Virginia.

While Purdue has won five regular-season titles and two in a row in Painter’s 19 seasons, fans want more.

“There’s been frustration among the fan base because we’ve been so good in the regular season, but it hasn’t equated to get into the Final Four,” said Robbie Hummel, one of a handful of former Purdue stars who had injuries that stunted potential runs in the NCAA Tournament. “That’s always kind of the punch line — it’s great that you have this regular season success, but you haven’t been to the Final Four since 1980.”

Painter is well aware of the program’s history and he wants more. He is from Muncie, Indiana, where he grew up rooting for the Hoosiers and against the Boilermakers until Keady offered him a spot on the team and later on his bench as an assistant.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been to a Final Four, and we’d like to accomplish that,” the 53-year-old Painter said. “But we know Tennessee’s in the way and they have a great team.”

The Vols are also desperately seeking a spot in college basketball’s season-ending showcase. Barnes would like to get back for the second time, and first since Syracuse beat his Texas team in the 2003 national semifinals.

Tennessee has matched its longest run in the NCAA Tournament, equaling the 2010 squad that lost to Michigan State by one point.

Knecht gives the Vols a shot to get over the hump.

The 6-6 wing is the first former junior college player to be selected to the All-America team since former UNLV star Larry Johnson in 1991.

“I’m just going to try to limit his touches, try to make it hard for him and just make it uncomfortable,” said Purdue’s Lance Jones, who played a part in limiting Knecht to three points in the second half and 16 overall in their previous meeting

PIVOTAL POINTS

The smallest guards on the court will likely play a big factor.

Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler, a 5-9, 171-pound blur, was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and had 18 points and six assists in the Sweet 16 win over Creighton.

Purdue’s 6-foot, 175-pound Braden Smith scored 12 points, had 15 assists and grabbed eight rebounds Saturday night against Gonzaga, nearly joining Carroll as the only players in program history to have a triple-double.

SUMMIT’S SHADOW

Barnes’ team has a chance to grab some attention on a campus where men’s hoops have, for decades, been overshadowed by the dominance achieved by the women’s program, which won six titles in 12 years in the ‘80s and ’90s under the late Pat Summitt.

“They’re the only team that’s gone to every single NCAA Tournament, which is unthinkable really,” Barnes said.

STAT TO WATCH

The Boilermakers have not lost a game when turning the ball over 13 or fewer times and are 6-4 when they’ve had 14-plus turnovers.

Tennessee, which plays relentless defense from the logo to the rim, forces 13-plus turnovers a game.

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

By LARRY LAGE
AP Sports Writer

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