HARTFORD, Conn. — Carsen Edwards is going to be honest with you. Really, really honest. Because he’s a little irritated.
Purdue blasted defending national champions Villanova 87–61 in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday night, and Edwards put on a show by scoring a career-high 42 points on 12-of-21 shooting, including nine three-pointers. For weeks now, Edwards has been criticized for a decline in his shooting percentage, which has been attributed to a back ailment. Since the Boilermakers have been in Hartford this week, Edwards has downplayed being hampered by any kind of soreness and has mostly been short when asked about it.
So this time, when he was asked if he was tired of people asking him about not shooting as well as he has in the past and if this game was some kind of statement, he gave a thoughtful reply.
“If we’re being really honest, I’m very tired of it,” Edwards said. “But I understand. I just have to keep working even after being able to have a game like this. I still have to stay in the gym, continue to work, and continue to prepare for the next game. I’m really tired of it. But I’m thankful to be able to have some shots fall for me today.”
Edwards said he didn’t even know he was having a career night until the game was over. He was so focused on trying to win—or being “on the hunt,” as coach Matt Painter described it—and now Purdue will play in its third consecutive Sweet 16. The Boilermakers will face the winner of Sunday's Tennessee-Iowa game.
Purdue relies on Edwards to score points, especially this season after losing four senior starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. As a junior, he led the Big Ten in scoring with 23.0 points per game and had a team-high 26 in the Boilermakers’ first round win over Old Dominion two days ago. But those points came on 7-of-23 shooting from the field. Heading into the matchup against Villanova, Edwards had gone 24-for-89 from the field and 11-for-45 from three-point range over the last four games.
Taking it a step further, last year he shot 45.8% from the floor, 40.6% from three, and averaged 18.5 points per game. This season he’s taken more shots (500 as a sophomore compared to 636 as a junior) but his percentage has cooled to 38.3% from the field and 33.5% from three. His scoring average, however, increased to 23.1 ppg.
“You know, he’s a very dynamic player,” Painter said. “But he sometimes tries to find his way into a game by being a volume shooter. That’s where he gets into trouble at times instead of letting things come t you. [Villanova was] obviously very aggressive. They switch a lot of things. And so it’s just trying to get into a rhythm and break people down when he has some mismatches.”
Edwards tends to go in and out of rhythm at times, but against the Wildcats, he made the right decisions and what it led to, Painter said, was Purdue playing “the best game of the year.”
Edwards wasn’t the only player feeling it. Matt Haarms was open in the paint all night and scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds. As a team, Purdue outscored Villanova inside, 26–8. Ryan Cline accounted for 12 points, all three. Purdue held a shocking 43–24 edge by halftime, but really pulled away after a 16–0 run to start the second half, which was aided by four three-pointers. Purdue went on to finish 16-of-30 from beyond the arc.
“We have a lot of guys who can shoot the three, and sometimes we fall in love with the three,” Painter said. I thought tonight we had a really good balance. Not just Matt getting slips to the rim, but Carsen also driving the basketball. I think that’s going to be important for us if we want to continue to advance."
Now, Edwards won’t be expected to score 42 points every game moving forward, but being more consistent in all aspects like he was Saturday makes Purdue all the more dangerous as a sleeper in the South region. The Boilermakers will face the winner of Tennessee-Iowa in the Sweet 16, guaranteeing they'll meet a team that can also score in spades, and if they get there, a potential meeting with offensive and defensive juggernaut Virginia in the regional final could await. The Boilermakers certainly offer balance around Edwards, but it's difficult to see them getting out of the region without their star leading the way.
On Saturday night, he did just that.