PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)—No way Justin Dentmon is overwhelmed with being one step from the regional round of the NCAA tournament. He’s overcome far too much for that.
“His story is as remarkable as anyone’s,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said.
Washington’s 23-year-old senior and second-leading scorer grew up in Carbondale, Ill., without knowing his troubled father. He did not meet him until Dentmon was a teenager and the man was in jail.
He overcame living without money. His mother, Stephanie Dentmon, gave birth to him when she was 13. He is still so close to his legal guardian, Charlie Jones, that the Illinois state trooper was in Seattle two weeks ago to be with Dentmon and his mom for his final home game at Washington.
Dentmon also overcame a learning disability that initially made him ineligible to attend Illinois State, as he’d signed to do while bypassing interest from current Purdue coach Matt Painter and hometown Southern Illinois. He went to prep school in Massachusetts to get his grades high enough to qualify, then he sought out Romar, for whom Dentmon had wanted to play when Romar was coaching Saint Louis.
On the court, he starred for the Huskies as a freshman and slumped as a sophomore when he now admits he was wrongly focused on impressing NBA scouts. He flopped so badly as a junior while playing point guard that he was benched.
He resurrected his career this season, after fiendish work on his shot in the summer and the arrival of freshman Isaiah Thomas moved Dentmon to his more natural shooting guard role. Dentmon was in the discussion for being the Pac-10 player of the year a month ago until defenses started swarming him. He settled for winning the Pac-10’s most improved player award while averaging 15 points per game.
So no, whatever defenses fifth-seeded Purdue (26-9) throws at Dentmon and his fourth-seeded Huskies (26-8) on Saturday in a second-round game in the West Region isn’t going to faze him.
“All that led me to work harder,” Dentmon said in his quiet, deep voice. “I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened in the past.”
Dentmon isn’t the only player in this first Washington-Purdue matchup since 1967 who has overcome obstacles. The engine that makes the Boilermakers go has had a fundamental issue recently: being able to walk pain free.
Robbie Hummel hobbled off the Madison Square Garden court Nov. 28 in the middle of a game with Oklahoma. The All-Big Ten first-team player last year as a top freshman last season out of Valparaiso, Ind., told Painter, “Coach, my back kind of feels weird.”
It never got better. An MRI exam showed nothing. Hummel—who with fellow starters JaJuan Johnson and leading scorer E’Twaun Moore were part of Purdue’s heralded freshman class last year—kept playing, but it got worse in a loss to Duke on Dec. 2. He played the conference opener against Illinois on Dec. 30. He sat out a loss to Penn State, played six more games, then missed three.
“I didn’t know if I’d come back,” he said.
A CAT scan finally revealed fractures to both sides of the L5 vertebrae in his lower back.
“Oh, it was terrible,” he said of the pain.
Doctors called them stress fractures, the result of years of twisting and banging and lifting. But, as Purdue trainer Jeff Stein said Saturday, “a fracture is a break.
“His season?” Stein said. “Yeah, that was in question.”
Hummel did get one clean break: the Boilermakers’ athletic training staff had just finished rehabilitating Purdue javelin thrower Kara Patterson, who had the same injury.
That was pretty successful. Patterson won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials with a record-setting throw to become the first women to represent Purdue’s track and field team in the Olympics.
Hummel’s recovery has been almost as Olympian. He still wears a hard-shell brace across his torso day and night—he wears a smaller one during games. He takes anti-inflammatories and spends hours in pools. As of last week he hadn’t been through an entire practice since Dec. 20. Yet last weekend he was picked as the most outstanding player in the Big Ten tournament for having 48 points and 28 rebounds in three games as Purdue beat Ohio State in the title game.
On Thursday, Hummel had 12 rebounds and 9 points in a NCAA first-round win over Northern Iowa.
On Friday, it was symbolic that when Painter walked behind Hummel in a corridor at the Rose Garden, he greeted him with a tap on the lower back.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t have any pain,” Hummel said.
Neither does Dentmon. Washington’s academic support staff taught him strategies to overcome the form of dyslexia that was ruining his studying. The oldest of six children has become so good at those that he is easily becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, within four years with a degree in art. He would like to be a sketch artist for a courts system or for the FBI.
He lists his favorite book as the Bible. His biggest influence: his mom.
“That stuff,” Romar said proudly, “is priceless.”
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