There were more than 100 fans and, apparently, at least one reporter and photographer waiting at the Purdue Airport at 1:30 a.m. Thursday when Boilermakers star Robbie Hummel emerged from his team's plane on crutches. That should help you understand just how devastating Hummel's season-ending injury is to the Boilermakers.
Purdue's 15.7-points-per-game scorer had his knee buckle late in the first half of Wednesday's game at Minnesota and, as many feared when it happened, he tore his ACL.
I'd already spent part of this week's Power Rankings breaking down the race for the last No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, which was believed to be Purdue's to lose but now could be wide open (see below). The Boilers will have to show the committee over these last couple of weeks that they can still win without him, which they did in dramatic fashion Wednesday at Minnesota but will be hard-pressed to do against Michigan State this weekend or in the Big Ten tournament.
Last Week: 1
Kansas Jayhawks (27-1)According to the Kansas City Star, the Jayhawks became just the third power-conference team in the last 50 years to win a sixth straight conference championship when it wrapped up another Big 12 title with its 81-68 win over Oklahoma. It's a remarkable feat, but what often gets overlooked is just how much the Jayhawks have evolved under Bill Self over those six years.
As Sherron Collins points out, the key to this year's team, much like his 2008 national title team, is how Self has gotten a horde of future first-rounders to buy into the team concept. "We all come in here All-Americans, highly recruited, scoring 30 a game, and they can get you to buy in," said Collins. "You gotta sacrifice. That's what everybody has been doing -- sacrificing."
As Kansas fans painfully remember, that wasn't always the case. Self's earlier teams, circa 2005-06, won the Big 12 more on pure talent while sometimes lacking chemistry and cohesion, resulting in some embarrassing early NCAA tourney exits. Even some of the cogs of the '08 team (Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush) took a couple of years to blend in. Perhaps by experiencing that '08 run, Collins and Cole Aldrich seemed to transition more seamlessly, and freshman star Xavier Henry has followed their lead.
Next three: 2/27 at Oklahoma State, 3/3 vs. Kansas State, 3/6 at Missouri.
Last Week: 2
Kentucky Wildcats (26-1)Every championship team needs to catch a break from time to time. Just think, if A.J. Ogilvy's point-blank runner hadn't rimmed out at the buzzer last Saturday, Vanderbilt may well have gone on to beat cold-shooting Kentucky in overtime, and the teams would have been tied for first in the SEC East. John Calipari would be taking a lot more heat for what he admitted to be "the stupidest timeout I've ever called" with 2.5 seconds left, allowing Kevin Stallings to draw up the full-court pass that resulted in Ogilvy's shot.
Instead, the lasting image from that game will be of yet another clutch performance in crunch time from freshman star John Wall. He shot just 3-for-11 on the night, but his recovery from a brief strip to put in a layup with just under 40 seconds remaining gave Kentucky the lead, and his block of Vandy's John Jenkins prevented a potential go-ahead three-pointer in the final four seconds.
On Thursday, Wall gets the chance to avenge his and his team's lone lowlight this season -- a Jan. 26 loss at South Carolina in which Devan Downey outshined Wall with a masterful 30-point performance. Rupp will be rocking.
Next three: 2/25 vs. South Carolina, 2/27 at Tennessee, 3/3 at Georgia.
Last Week: 4
Syracuse Orange (26-2)It's not enough to be 26-2 and sitting on the brink of clinching a Big East title. Syracuse finds a different way each night to make things interesting. Last week at Georgetown, the Orange came out smoking against their rival and led 60-37 with 12:37 left before letting the Hoyas come storming back to within one point, 71-70, with 1:10 remaining. Kris Joseph rescued them with a last-second driving layup.
Monday's game at Providence played out in almost the exact opposite fashion. This time, Syracuse's normally stingy zone defense inexplicably disappeared in the first half, allowing the Friars to score 52 points before the Orange opened the second half on a 26-2 run. Unlike the Georgetown game, when Jim Boeheim's team struggled to score in the second half, the 'Cuse exploded for a season-high 99 points.
With star Wesley Johnson still dealing with injuries that limited him to two second-half points against Georgetown and 10 for the game against Providence, Andy Rautins stepped up with his two biggest games of the season (26 and 28 points). One can't get help but sense we're going to see the Orange clicking on all cylinders come Saturday night's primetime showdown against Villanova for the league crown.
Next three: 2/27 vs. Villanova, 3/2 vs. St. John's, 3/6 at Louisville.
Last Week: 3
Purdue Boilermakers (24-3)You couldn't ask for a gutsier performance than what the Boilers pulled off Wednesday night at Minnesota, rallying to win in the closing seconds after losing Robbie Hummel late in the first half when he'd already scored 11 points. (He returned to the bench on crutches.) After watching the Gophers score the first 12 points of the second half to take a 35-30 lead, Purdue spent most of the second half just trying to stay within a bucket or two, then finally pounced in the last 1:19 thanks to two clutch shots from unsung senior Keaton Grant to win 59-58.
Purdue has been in this position before. Hummel, one of the team's top three scorers in each of his three seasons as well as its leading rebounder, missed five games last season and was limited in others while dealing with back spasms. The Boilers went 1-3 in Big Ten games without him. This year's team has gotten more scoring from all three of its vaunted juniors, Hummel, E'Twaun Moore (17.0 points per game) and JaJuan Johnson (14.8), while Johnson has become a better rebounder. They're not quite as dependent on Hummel as they were last year.
Still, it's asking a lot of guys like Grant (6.5 ppg) and Kelsey Barlow (3.7) to fill his shoes. The Boilers will still be a very good team and don't deserve a massive drop in these rankings before even playing a full game without Hummel, but it's very hard to believe they'll maintain their level of play. Sadly, their dreams of that first Final Four trip since 1980 are likely over.
Next three: 2/28 vs. Michigan State, 3/2 vs. Indiana, 3/6 at Penn State.
Last Week: 6
Duke Blue Devils (23-4)Even before Hummel's injury, Duke fans were starting to voice their displeasure with the notion that Purdue was seemingly being handed the last No. 1 seed already. Take a closer look at the numbers, they clamored. So I did.
Team RPI Top 25 Top 50 Top 100 Road SOS(non-conf)
Last Week: 7
Kansas State Wildcats (23-4)While we're on the subject of No. 1 seeds, what about the Wildcats, a team that Dick Vitale recently declared to be "a great Final Four choice!" How do they stack up?
Team RPI Top 25 Top 50 Top 100 Road SOS (non-conf)
Last Week: 5
Villanova Wildcats (23-4)Villanova has been feeling the heat lately over its statistically shoddy defense. In a 70-65 loss at Pittsburgh last Sunday, the Panthers dominated the offensive glass 18-10 to hand Scottie Reynolds and Co. their second straight loss.
To Villanova's credit, it came out Wednesday against USF and delivered one of its finest defensive performances of the season, holding Bulls star Dominique Jones to 12 points on just 2-of-10 shooting and USF to 38.1 percent from the field in a 74-49 rout. And Reynolds had an appropriately dominant performance (21 points) in his last career game at the Pavilion.
Now comes the Wildcats' most important game of the season Saturday night at the Carrier Dome. Villanova's offense will need to be clicking the way it was earlier in the season because its best hope of victory may be a scoring duel. If it can pull off the upset, add 'Nova to the No. 1 seed discussion.
Next three: 2/27 at Syracuse, 3/2 at Cincinnati, 3/6 vs. West Virginia.
Last Week: 11
Ohio State Buckeyes (22-7)Lest you think the Evan Turner-led Buckeyes are a one-man team, lest you think a team that often uses just six players per contest can't hang with a more rested foe, Ohio State debunked both theories with an eyebrow-raising win at Michigan State on Sunday. The Buckeyes jumped out to a 39-26 halftime lead despite just four points from Turner, who was battling the flu. They withstood the inevitable Spartans rally (briefly falling behind by one) despite the fact their only player off the bench, big man Kyle Madsen, fouled out with 11 minutes remaining. And even after the slow start, Turner still managed to notch a 20-point, 10-rebound game.
The thought going into that game was that Michigan State would have the advantage due to the strength and depth of its frontcourt. Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson basically had his way with the Buckeyes a few nights earlier. But Ohio State's biggest strength is its ability to cut off opposing guards' dribble penetration -- like it did Kalin Lucas -- and in turn force teams to take bad shots. Time and again in that game they grabbed rebounds and quickly pushed the ball up court.
On Wednesday, the Buckeyes endured a brief scare at Penn State, which cut a 17-point deficit to two with 5:15 left. It was 63-59 with less than three minutes remaining, but then, on consecutive possessions, Turner (who finished with 25 points) drained two lethal pull-up jumpers, and there went that.
Next three: 2/27 vs. Michigan, 3/2 vs. Illinois, 3/12 vs. TBD (Big Ten tourney).
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