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Boiler Express picks up steam

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Bo Ryan is sick of Robbie Hummel.

The Wisconsin coach becomes agitated when asked about the Purdue senior during news conferences and it annoys him when television cameras show Hummel and his bum knee sitting at end of Purdue’s bench in street clothes.

The way Ryan sees it, the story of Purdue’s oft-injured forward is played out.

“Robbie is my guy,” Ryan said, “but that’s old. This Purdue team … people ought to just cheer for them with who they’ve got. Because they’re pretty good.”

Ryan’s Wisconsin squad found that out the hard way Wednesday in a 70-62 loss to the Boilermakers at Mackey Arena. JaJuan Johnson (20 points), E’Twaun Moore (19) and Lewis Jackson (18) combined for 57 points for 11th-ranked Purdue.

At 10-3, the Boilermakers are still trying to catch first-place Ohio State (12-1) in the race for the Big Ten title. Purdue plays host to the Buckeyes on Sunday.

“We’ll keep talking about [a league title] until we’re mathematically eliminated,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “You don’t put in all that work not to continue to dream.”

That Purdue is even in this position is a credit to Painter. It wasn’t long ago, after all, when the nation all but gave up on his team after Hummel tore his ACL during the first official practice on Oct. 16.

With Hummel, the Boilermakers would’ve entered the season as the third or fourth-ranked team in the country. Instead Purdue checked in at No. 14 in the first Associated Press poll. A Nov. 27 loss to Richmond almost dropped Painter’s squad out of the Top 20. A good team? Yes. An elite one? Hardly.

But that was four months ago.

Look at the Purdue now.

Rather than groan about what they could’ve accomplished with Hummel, Boilermaker fans are now buzzing about how strong they’ve become without him.

With one of the country’s most underrated coaches leading the charge, Purdue is as good as any team in college basketball that doesn’t have Texas, Kansas, Ohio State, Pittsburgh or Duke on the front of its jerseys. A No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament is not out of the question for Purdue. Neither is a berth in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight – or even the Final Four.

Maybe Purdue’s success shouldn’t seem all that shocking.

The Boilermakers tout a first-team All-American candidate in Johnson, a soon-to-be-2,000-point-scorer in Moore and crazed a fanbase that makes Mackey Arena one of the loudest, most intimidating venues in the country. Now 14-0 at home, Purdue has won 34 of its last 35 games against Wisconsin in West Lafayette.

It seemed as if things could’ve been different Wednesday. The Badgers entered the game fresh off an upset of then-No. 1 and undefeated Ohio State on Saturday, and junior Jordan Taylor had been playing as well as any point guard in the country.

None of it mattered.

Purdue committed just five turnovers and made 17 of its 19 attempts from the foul line. Even more important was a Boilermakers defense that pestered Wisconsin into misses on 16 of its 19 shots from beyond the arc. To be fair, the Badgers had good looks on some of those attempts, but they were too rattled to capitalize.

“If you can’t hit some of those wide open 3’s, it’s going to be a long night,” Ryan said.

One of the biggest heroes for Purdue was Jackson, the point guard who scored just one point when the Badgers beat Purdue on Feb. 1. Jackson shot 6-of-9 from the field in Wednesday’s rematch, did not commit a turnover and kept Taylor from going nuts. Taylor, who averaged 24.3 points in his previous three games, finished with 15 points.

“They just told me earlier today that I had to be special,” Jackson said, “whether that was getting a lot of assists, shutting down Jordan Taylor or scoring the ball.”

With Wednesday’s win complete, the Boilermakers can shift their attention to Sunday’s clash with No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes embarrassed Purdue in an 84-67 beatdown Jan. 25 in Columbus.

“They had us down by 30 for most of the game,” Painter said. “We’ve got to do a better job of competing. That’s the only game this year where I felt we just didn’t compete. It had nothing to do with X’s and o’s. They just simply stole our spirit.”

Now the Boilermakers want to do the same thing to Ohio State. Impressive as it was against Wisconsin, Purdue knows it could really generate some talk by defeating the Buckeyes. Certainly then the entire nation – and not just folks in Big Ten country – would realize just how good this Purdue team truly is.

Even without Robbie Hummel.

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