Don’t count out Purdue just yet
The second day of basketball practice at Purdue last month disintegrated from boundless optimism into staggering sorrow.
As senior standout Robbie Hummel went through workouts with his teammates, testing the surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, something went awry.
Hummel contested the shot of teammate E’Twaun Moore during a drill. He came down on two feet with a thud and rolled to the floor.
This didn’t seem at all like when Hummel suffered a gruesome tear in the knee at Minnesota last February. There was no pop, no twist, no scream.
The end result proved just as devastating: another ACL injury, another lost season for Hummel.
Huge expectations for the Boilermakers gone bust?
“At first we were hoping it was just an ankle sprain, just a twisted knee, something like that,” Moore said. “But after a while we saw he was really hurting. We thought, ‘oh shoot, not this again.’
“There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Coach Matt Painter was more succinct.
“It stinks,” he said.
Just like that – in the eyes of many – Purdue went from Big Ten, Final Four and national championship contenders to also-rans. Major publications dropped the Boilers from second or third in the preseason rankings to 23rd or 25th.
That initial feeling of helplessness was replaced by anger for some players. Moore wondered, “What about the rest of us?”
“They dropped us and I was like whoa,” he said. “I guess they thought without him we wouldn’t be a good team. We still have great players. We are going to go out and play hard and win ballgames.
“It motivates me. It definitely makes me want to go win and prove them wrong. It’s like a war. Somebody goes down and you have to keep fighting.”
Purdue has plenty of battle left. It begins with senior All-Americans JaJuan Johnson and Moore.
Johnson remains wiry at 6-foot-10, 216 pounds. But he is getting stronger (he can now bench press 325 pounds, he says) and is expected to be one of the best centers in the college game. Coming off a season in which he averaged 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while playing with Hummel and Moore, there is reason to believe his production will increase.
“It’s definitely helped me,” Johnson said of his offseason commitment in the weight room. “From a physical standpoint, I’m finishing plays and I’m rebounding better. Those were some of the things I needed to work on.”
Moore, meanwhile, gets plenty of notice in the Big Ten, but is underappreciated nationally in terms of his ability to knock down shots and get to the basket. He averaged 16.4 points in 2009-2010, leading Purdue to an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 berth. The Boilers’ run – without Hummel – was ended there by eventual national champion Duke.
“My role is not going to change,” Moore said. “I’m going to try and be more efficient, be a better player. I’m still going to have to defend, score points and be a leader.”
Naysayers note that not only will Painter be without Hummel this season, but key contributors Chris Kramer, a defensive game-changer, and Keaton Grant are also gone.
That is true, but consider who returns. Eight of the 10 players in Painter’s rotation down the stretch last season are back. Included in that group is playmaking point guard Lewis Jackson. He, like Johnson, focused on improving shortcomings in his game over the summer.
“He’s definitely worked on his shot in the offseason,” Johnson said of Jackson. “He’s a quick guard, he’s real crafty, he knows what to do. He’s going to be a junior so he’s experienced. He’s going to be really good for us.”
With the threat Hummel creates as a scorer, rebounder and defender erased, Purdue will have to adapt its approach, if not its outlook.
“Our goals don’t really change,” Johnson said. “It’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up.”
Painter may have to experiment with a smaller lineup, particularly during non-conference play. Once the Big Ten season begins against the likes of frontcourt-heavy Ohio State (Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale), Michigan State (Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix), Illinois (Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale) and Wisconsin (Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil) his strategy may have to be altered.
Going small, the Boilers could use JaJuan Johnson in the pivot, sophomore Kelsey Barlow at power forward and freshman Terone Johnson on the wing, with Moore and Jackson in the backcourt.
Expect Painter to use the talent he has creatively and selectively. Bigger options include freshman forward Travis Carroll, sophomore forward Patrick Bade, redshirt freshman forward Sandi Marcius and sophomore swingman D.J. Byrd.
“You have time to prepare and make some adjustments,” Painter said. “It’s not like we’re throwing in a replica of Rob Hummel. I wish our next guy was Rob Hummel as a freshman, but they’re not. They’re good, quality Big Ten players but they are inexperienced and unproven.
“Now they have an opportunity. Now we have some guys who can take it and run. I wish it was maybe one guy who was waiting in the wings, but it’s really a handful of guys who are going to get more minutes and get more of an opportunity.”
Collectively they will try to offset Hummel’s loss. His 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a game will certainly be missed. But the Boilers aren’t losing his leadership. He’ll still be around the team providing support, sharing savvy. The “coach on the floor” will now be imparting his wisdom off of it.
“He has definitely tried to lift us up and get us to play better on the floor,” Moore said.
To dismiss Purdue as a championship-caliber team would be a mistake. It’s an error that the Boilers are hell-bent on correcting.
“We definitely want to prove people wrong.” JaJuan Johnson said. “I still think we have a really good team. I still think we are deeper this year than we have been in previous years.
“Now I think we are almost the underdogs in some people’s eyes. The pressure is not on us, it’s on MSU and Ohio State.”
Refuting preseason predictions may prove inspirational.