INDIANAPOLIS—Purdue fans have wondered since December what the Boilermakers would look like with a full complement of healthy players.
They’re finally finding out—and not a moment too soon.
With Robbie Hummel feeling the best he has in months—just in time for postseason play—the Boilermakers are steamrolling through the Big Ten tournament, most recently disposing of Illinois 66-56 on Saturday.
Purdue got 19 points from the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and held the Illini scoreless for a whopping stretch of almost eleven minutes to advance to a title showdown with Ohio State on Sunday.
The Boilers are looking for their first Big Ten tournament championship, and a healthy Hummel seems to have them poised to take the hardware back to West Lafayette.
“I’ve got to the point with this brace where I feel really good,” Hummel told me after the semifinal win. “[My bad back] doesn’t spasm on me anymore.”
Boilermaker supporters have spent the past few months wincing every time Hummel took a charge, dove for a loose ball, or sometimes, even when he tried to run, but it seems those days are in the past.
“I’m not worried about falling on it or anything like that now,” Hummel said.
Purdue’s sophomore star was perfect from behind the arc in the game, hitting four three-pointers in the first half to help Purdue jump to a 37-17 lead at intermission.
It got to the point inside Conseco Fieldhouse where there was a roar everytime No. 4 went to shoot, because it was a guaranteed tally on the scoreboard.
“[Having Hummel in there] makes things a lot easier,” Purdue guard E’Twaun Moore said. “When we drive the lane and they help, we kick to him and it’s an automatic three points.”
With the way the Boilers’ offense is clicking inside and out, another win in tomorrow’s final seems to be automatic as well. After struggling through a season-worst scoring performance yesterday due to foul trouble, JaJuan Johnson led Purdue with 20 points and 3 blocked shots.
Johnson dominated the paint offensively and defensively, showing why he was selected to the conference’s All-Defensive Team in addition to being named First Team All-Big Ten.
“We definitely try to keep it balanced,” Moore said of his team’s inside-out prowess. “We play our best basketball when everybody contributes.”
Of course, the defensive effort can’t be overlooked. Holding a team scoreless for a long stretch of time is impressive. Holding a team without a field goal for 12 minutes and 34 seconds borders on absurd.
“We’re healthy now,” defensive leader Chris Kramer told reporters. “We got Rob back and we completely bought into how Purdue needs to play. We need to play as hard as we can and just play to exhaustion.”
Hopefully not complete exhaustion, because now it’s on to a rubber match with the fifth-seeded Buckeyes for the Big Ten crown. Purdue dropped an 80-72 overtime decision in the teams’ first meeting (without Hummel), but pounded OSU 75-50 two weeks ago in West Lafayette.
“We need to be effective on both ends of the court,” Johnson said as he looked ahead to tomorrow’s final. “We have to limit them to one shot.”
Moore agreed. “We’ve got to rebound,” he emphasized. “They’re just so big!”
So far, this weekend has played out as well as Purdue could possibly have hoped. A week ago, it looked like the team was playing its worst basketball of the year, most notably in a senior night home loss to Northwestern. Now, the team is 40 solid defensive minutes away from a Big Ten title.
E’Twaun, what’s the difference? Why the change?
“We’re playing for championships now. It’s win or go home.”
With a full arsenal of weapons (finally), the Boilers aren’t planning on going home empty-handed.