Welcome to the inaugural post in the “Sports” category. I forewarn you, I am a complete Purdue homer, but I do generally enjoy watching Big Televen basketball. I’ll try to keep things as unbiased as I can, but my ones of readers will have to forgive if I let my true colors show from time-to-time. Let’s get things started by talking about Purdue’s season so far.
After a few sad years in the middle part of the decade, I was really excited for this year’s Purdue team. Last year, with mostly freshmen and sophomores, the Boilermakers outperformed expectations, including a sweep of eventual conference champions Wisconsin. With all of the key players returning, including Preseaon Player of the Year Robbie Hummel and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer, it was obvious that Matt Painter’s team was the favorite to win the conference title. So what has happened since then? The team is struggling to remain in contention for the title, and may realistically finish somewhere in the middle. Why?
- Injuries – Robbie Hummel hurt his back early in the season. Last week it was revealed that he has a stress fracture in his L-5 vertebrae. Hummel has shown an amazing ability to play through it, but as the season has gone on it has become more obvious that he’s not playing as well as he could. He’s sat out the last two games, including today’s blowout loss in Champaign. Purdue has a lot of talent, but they’re just not the same team when Hummel is on the bench. In three of the four conference losses, Hummel sat out entirely, and in the opening loss to Illinois, he left the game on crutches. It looks like Hummel may not be back until tournament time, if even then, so this does not bode well for the remainder of the schedule.
Robbie Hummel isn’t the only player to deal with injuries. Chris Kramer had his nose broken by Michigan’s Manny Harris, although that doesn’t seem to have slowed down his defense. Lewis Jackson suffered a concussion at the hands of Joe Krabbengoon in Wisconsin. Keaton Grant, JaJuan Johnson, and Jackson spent a week battling the flu.
- Silenced shooters – Junior Keaton Grant and sophomore E’Twaun Moore shot very well last year. This year, they’ve been quiet for the most part. Especially in light of Hummel’s absence, Purdue can ill afford to have either of these guards not making shots. To have both of them silent has been brutal.
- Running out of gas – With Hummel’s back and the various other injuries and illnesses, the players have been worn out. In the last two games, it was clear that the team was only able to play 30 minutes. This is where I blame Coach Painter, to some extent. Senior Bobby “Buckets” Riddell and freshman Ryne Smith aren’t as good as some of the other players on the team (although I think I’d pick either one of them over Marcus Green) but they could provide a few minutes of valuable rest to the rest of the team. It might not have mattered against Illinois, but it could have ended the game against The Ohio State University in regulation. Which brings me to
- Overtime – I don’t know why, but Purdue has yet to win in overtime under Matt Painter. Does it have to do with running out of gas? Maybe. It could just be bad luck, but it’s a very disturbing trend. Certainly, this year’s team has to get it done in regulation.
So why might Purdue be okay going down the stretch?
- Chris Kramer – I will freely admit to having quite a man crush on #3. One of the best defenders in the country, he sparks his teammates just by being on the floor. Although he’s been a weak presence on offense, his defense will be key to keeping Purdue in the game down the stretch.
- JaJuan Johnson – What a difference a year can make. Johnson has gone from being a weak, scrawny post player to a great, scrawny post player. Johnson has had some big games, and he can battle anyone under the basket. His slight frame hasn’t kept him from getting several double-doubles in conference play. With the threat of JaJuan Johnson underneath, opponents must give a little extra room to the guards.
- Schedule – Purdue faced a rough first half of the conference schedule, including games at Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota, and Ohio State. The remaining schedule keeps them in Mackey Arena for five of the last seven games, including what should be an absolute drubbing of Indiana. If the Boilers can win the remainder of their home games, then there’s still hope for a decent seed in the tournament.
- Coaching – I know I gave Matt Painter grief above, but he is truly one of the outstanding young coaches in basketball. He can do a lot with a little (see: 2007 NCAA tournament) and I’m sure he hasn’t given up on hanging a 22nd banner.
The Big Ten conference is one of the toughest in the country this year, and there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. There are still several teams who could get hot and win the conference. We’ll find out in March.