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Carsen Edwards Presents Unique Problem for Vols’ Defense

(Photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports)

The Vols haven’t faced a scorer this season like they’re about to face in the Sweet Sixteen.

Purdue’s Carsen Edwards is one of the best pure scorers in college basketball. He’s averaging 23.6 points per game in his junior year, and he just dropped 42 points against Villanova during the Boilermakers’ 87-61 victory over the Wildcats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee has only faced two other players this season who finished the year averaging over 20 points per game, and they played for mid-major schools. Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo finished this season averaging 23.7 points per game and Louisiana’s Jakeenan Gant averaged 20.5 points per game.

But neither of those players are the type of player Carsen Edwards is.

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Mayo is a 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward who can be a force inside, and Gant is a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward who is versatile and athletic. Mayo had a solid performance against the Vols, scoring 23 points while bringing down nine rebounds and dishing out three assists. The rest of his team, though, couldn’t do much. Tennessee beat Eastern Kentucky 95-67. Gant finished with 18 points, six rebounds, and three steals, but Louisiana was beaten soundly as well, 87-65.

Those two players aren’t typically volume shooters. Mayo did average 17.1 field goal attempts per game and was easily the leading scorer for Eastern Kentucky, but he wasn’t the primary three-point shooter for the Colonels and had other players who could take off some of the load. Gant averaged 14.5 field goal attempts a game, and Louisiana had a more balanced offense around him.

Purdue certainly has more than just Edwards on offense. Ryan Cline is dangerous from three, and Matt Haarms is formidable in the paint at 7-foot-3. But for the most part, the show is run by Edwards.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound guard has more than double the amount of points scored than Purdue’s second-leading scorer this season. Edwards has dropped in 803 points all by himself this season. Cline is second behind him, but he’s scored just 398 points on the year.

Edwards fills up the stat sheet, averaging 3.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.4 steals to go along with his 23.6 points per game. But he’s a relatively inefficient shooter, and his game against Villanova over the weekend was definitely more of an outlier than the norm for him.

On the season, Edwards is shooting just 38.8 percent overall and 34.6 percent from three. For a player that averages nearly 20 field goal attempts a game (19.3), those aren’t good numbers.

Against Villanova, Edwards attempted 21 field goals and connected on 12 of them. That 57.1 shooting percentage was tied for the fourth-best percentage he’s shot this season, matching his 8-of-14 performance against Illinois back on February 27th. That game marked only the 12th time in 34 games this season he’s shot over 50 percent in a game. For comparison, Admiral Schofield has made 50 percent or more of his field goal attempts in 18 of his 36 games.

Edwards is a phenomenal scorer, but he takes the late Kobe Bryant approach to scoring; he likes to shoot and shoot often to get his points.

The junior guard is definitely a volume shooter, and Purdue has consistently been at their worst when he’s making poor shot selections. The key for Tennessee won’t be to shut him down, but to make him uncomfortable and force him into bad shots.

Purdue struggles to win if Edwards struggles to score or if he takes a high volume of attempts and is forcing the issue.

When Edwards has scored fewer than 20 points this season, Purdue is just 6-3 compared to 19-6 when he scores at least 20 points. Only once in those nine games has he shot over 33.3 percent from the floor (50.0 percent in a win vs. Rutgers). Aside from that one game, Edwards has shot an abysmal 24.0 percent from the field when scoring fewer than 20 points.

But those types of performances are outliers for Edwards. He’s scored fewer than 20 points in just 26.5 percent of Purdue’s games this season, so don’t count on it happening on Thursday. What isn’t as much of an outlier, though, is him jacking up a bunch of shots.

On the season, Edwards has attempted over 20 field goal attempts in a game 14 different times. In those games, the Boilermakers are just 8-6. Purdue won in the second round against Villanova when Edwards shot 21 field goals, but they’re consistently better off when he is more selective with his shots. When Edwards attempts 20 field goals or less, Purdue is 17-3, with those three losses coming to NCAA Tournament teams (Florida State, Michigan State, Minnesota).

In the games where Edwards has attempted more than 20 field goals, he’s shot 38.5 percent from the field. In the games where he’s shot 20 times or fewer, he’s making 40.4 percent of his attempts. So he’s shooting better when he’s taking fewer shots, showing that he’s usually making poorer choices in the games he’s putting up more attempts.

Not surprisingly, when Edwards has been more of a distributor and helped the ball movement on his team, Purdue has flourished. The Boilermakers are 7-1 when Edwards dishes out five or more assists in a game. In those games, he’s attempted just 18 field goals a contest.

But when someone else has to pick up the slack for Edwards, Purdue has very little luck winning games.

Purdue’s second-leading scorer, Ryan Cline, has been effective as a No. 2 option behind Edwards, but the Boilermakers have had issues when he’s had to step up as a scorer. When Cline has scored 14 or more points this season, Purdue is just 6-6, and four of those wins came against Robert Morris, Ohio, Appalachian State, and a bad Penn State team. Those four teams went a combined 57-73 this season. Purdue is 19-3 when Cline scores 13 or fewer points in a game.

Limiting Edwards won’t be easy, and he’s been extra good when he’s played away from Purdue, surprisingly. He only averaged 22.2 points per game at home this season, but he scored an average of 23.7 points on the road. He’s been even better in neutral site games this season, scoring an average of 26.6 points in seven games played at a neutral court this season. He’s shooting 42.6 percent overall and 39.7 percent from three in neutral site games.

Not only that, but Tennessee must be careful not to send him to the free throw line often. Edwards averages about six free throw attempts per game, and he’s knocking down 85.2 percent of those attempts. When he’s shot nine or more free throws in a game, Purdue is 6-1 this season.

If Tennessee can frustrate Edwards and make him take bad shots — and a lot of them — then they stand a really good chance of winning. The Vols will have to overcome a really good Boilermaker defense and can’t turn the ball over a ton, but forcing Edwards into an inefficient night should be a big priority.

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