Purdue's Court Struggles: The Robbie Hummel Dilemma

Jeff StineCorrespondent IFebruary 9, 2009

There has been much speculation on what Purdue and Matt Painter should do with Robbie Hummel. Purdue's most important player (and the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year) has a hairline fracture in the L5 vertebrae and has been in extreme discomfort since Purdue played Duke before Christmas.

In fact, although he's played in several games since, he's yet to practice fully in 2009. To me, the timing of Robbie's return is contingent upon two things:

1) Most importantly, his health. Coach Painter said Hummel could have played against Illinois, so I'm going to assume we'll see him again this year.

2) The team's basketball health. While Purdue fans want to say otherwise it is extremely unlikely that this team will win the Big Ten. Sure, Michigan State still has five games (@UM, @PU, UW, @Ill, PU) it could lose, but I don't see them losing more than three of them and I'd be surprised if they lose more than two.

As such, I think this Purdue team is playing for two things; to be playing their best basketball at the end of the season, and to get at least a favorable seed in the NCAA tourney. Ideally, it would also include a Top Three seed in the Big Ten Tournament, but I'm not sure I see that happening, with OSU holding a favorable schedule and Illinois holding a tiebreaker against them.

So here are my thoughts by week:

This week (PSU and @ Iowa)—I don't think Hummel plays at all. Coach Painter is going to roll the guys out there that have been going and hopefully can pull off wins in both games, or at worst a split.

Next week (MSU and IU)—I don't think Hummel plays against IU regardless (I doubt Purdue needs him), so it probably makes sense to get him the extra 12 days of rest (between Iowa and Michigan) if he doesn't go this week.

The only way I see that not happening is if he shows significant improvement and either the team continues its current funk and loses to both PSU and Iowa, or the Boilermakers regroup and beat both PSU and Iowa—and Sparty drops its game at Michigan, thereby re-opening Purdue's Big Ten title prospects.

The following week and beyond—If this team still has legit BTT hopes or is teetering close to the bubble, I can see Hummel coming back for the game at Michigan or against OSU. Otherwise, I think he is saved for a season-ending game at MSU in hopes the team can re-acclimate to each other before the BTT and NCAA tournaments. Even then, I'd be surprised if Hummel averages more than 20 minutes in the BTT.

The fortunate reality for Purdue fans is that the committee does take injuries into consideration, so assuming Hummel will be available, I think 20-12 would get this team dancing. That would require winning three of their last eight Big Ten games and assumes a BTT opening round loss. The reality, though, is if this team wants a seven-seed or better, it's going to need to win at least five or six more games.

If these guys can rebound and beat both the Nits and Hawkeyes this week, they'll be well on the way.

Obviously, it's pretty disappointing as a Purdue fan to even speculate the above, given the preseason expectations. I can guarantee that if Hummel returns to anywhere near full strength and the other guys can get out of their collective funks, there's not a two or three-seed out there that's going to be happy looking at the prospect of a second-round match-up with the Boilermakers.

Remaining Schedule:
February 11 Penn State 6:30 PM ET
February 14 at Iowa 4:00 PM ET
February 17 No. 14 Michigan State 7:00 PM ET
February 21 Indiana 2:00 PM ET
February 26 at Michigan 9:00 PM ET
March 1 Ohio State
March 4 Northwestern
March 8 at No. 14 Michigan State