From the last edition of this column:
"Purdue's upcoming two-game road trip to Ohio State and Illinois (both difficult venues) should tell us a lot about the Boilers' title chances." (Feb. 2, 2009)
Well, I was right...but not in the way I hoped. Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (can we stop calling him that now?) Robbie Hummel remained firmly glued to the bench during Purdue's two road games, and the Boilermakers came up on the short end both times, telling us a little too much about the team's title chances. Or lack thereof.
At this point, fans of the Old Gold and Black are much more knowledgeable than they wanted to be about obscure terms like vertebrae, L5, and (unfortunately) DNP. While Hummel continues to be "day-to-day", Purdue continues to try and salvage a season that started with visions of March glory.
The most recent slide started with a nailbiting defeat in Columbus. Matt Painter's squad continues to be completely baffled by overtime games...Purdue hasn't won one since Painter took the helm.
Of course, Purdue has never won in Value City Arena either, so it was hard to be surprised by the outcome.
What was surprising, however, was Purdue's complete unwillingness to defend against layups and dunks. For a team that prides itself on grit at the defensive end, the Boilermakers sure seemed like they were willing to help B.J. Mullens practice for the NBA Slam-Dunk competition a couple years early.
Purdue's famed field-goal-percentage defense stood around and watched as the Buckeyes connected on 60% of their shots for the game. Thad Matta probably would have given his team a few days off coming in, if he had known the battle with Top-20 Purdue wasn't going to be more of a challenge than your typical layup line.
For as bad as Purdue's defensive effort was (and as short as the rotation went...only seven Boilermakers saw action), the visitors still had a chance to steal one at the end of regulation, but Lewis Jackson got the ball knocked away in the paint with a few seconds to play. That brought overtime, and we know what happens then.
After the disappointing outcome in Columbus, Purdue's next challenge came in Champaign, IL against the Fighting Illini and Painter's mentor/former boss, Bruce Weber. Still paper-thin without Hummel, the Boilers gamely hung in for the first 30 minutes or so, but Illinois ended up outscoring them 34-20 in the second half to win going away.
Nobody knows when, or if, Hummel will return to action. The most optimistic fans hope an extended break will let the Purdue star play at a high level in March, when it counts, and that the Boilers can sneak into the tournament shorthanded, even if that means Hummel continues to sit for the next few weeks.
Reports that he has been participating more in shootarounds and practices mean Hummel could be back for this weekend's roadie at Iowa or next week's mammoth showdown with conference leader Michigan State.
In the meantime, Painter has to get more production from his bench. Nemanja Calasan and Marcus Green combined for an average of five ppg (TOTAL!) in the trips to Columbus and Champaign...with basically a seven-man rotation, that won't get it done.
The good news: Purdue managed to get back on the winning track in the friendly confines of Mackey Arena, posting a 61-47 revenge win over Penn State and receiving a career-high 13 wonderful points from little-used senior walk-on Bobby Riddell.
If Riddell can at least contribute a couple minutes here and there while Hummel recovers, Purdue can stop playing Chris Kramer, Lewis Jackson, Keaton Grant, and E'Twaun Moore for forty minutes each. (Okay, they haven't REALLY played the full forty, but it sure seems that way.)
I'd love to predict a Purdue surge down the stretch to surpass Michigan State and win the Big Ten...But without a healthy Hummel, I don't see it. At this point, I'd be happy with enough wins to get a mediocre seed in the NCAAs, and then I'll join every Purdue fan in crossing our fingers that Hummel can go when it counts (in March), and who knows?
Maybe the Boilers can still pull down one of those banners (at least the Big Ten tourney?) after all.