From the day last season ended, Purdue fans have had a dream for how the 2009-10 season would play out. All the stars were aligned for a trip to the Final Four.
On this, the 30th anniversary of their last Final Four appearance, the Boilers were returning a core of veteran stars playing together for their third straight season. Coming off a Sweet 16 run in the '09 tourney, they garnered a preseason top-10 ranking. Much the way Michigan State took over Detroit's Ford Field last year, Purdue followers anticipated flocking to the site of this year's festivities, Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, located a mere 70 miles from campus.
Deep into February, that dream played out as scripted. The Boilers stormed through their nonconference schedule, beating Wake Forest, Tennessee and West Virginia en route to a 14-0 start. Following a three-game slump near the start of Big Ten play, they rolled off another 10 consecutive wins. Heading into a Feb. 24 date at Minnesota, Purdue sat at 23-3, and the nation's "bracketologists" were universally projecting the Boilers to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Then star junior Robbie Hummel tore his ACL.
That wasn't part of the script.
While Purdue plays in this week's Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, the NCAA tournament selection committee will be sitting in a hotel conference room just a few minutes away trying to answer a difficult question: Just how high a seed do these Boilers (26-4) merit in their current incarnation?
Purdue coach Matt Painter admits to being a bit mystified as to how they'll go about it, especially after listening to television analysts compare his team's situation to that of Cincinnati losing star Kenyon Martin on the eve of the 2000 NCAA tournament. The committee dropped the likely top-seeded Bearcats down a spot, and they lost to Tulsa in the second round.
"That's the only thing I've heard anybody compare this to as far as a [likely] 1, 2 or 3 seed losing someone who's really significant to his team at this point in season -- and that's one team with one player," Painter said. "They don't have a lot of data of this happening, so for them to sit in a room and be able to gauge this accurately seems awfully difficult. I'd rather they just look at our whole body of work."
Purdue's body of work -- a share of the Big Ten's regular-season championship, six wins over RPI top-50 foes and an impressive 12-2 road/neutral-court record -- will assure them a relatively high seed. But the committee is likely to place greater emphasis than it would normally on the Boilers' Big Ten tournament performance this weekend. It may be the only way to gauge whether Purdue remains a viable Final Four contender.
After Hummel went down against the Gophers, Purdue managed to rally for a 59-58 win. Its first full game without Hummel, however, could not have been much uglier: Michigan State took down the Boilers 53-44 in West Lafayette.
Painter's team bounced back last week with consecutive wins over Indiana (74-55) and at Penn State (64-60) to earn a share of its first Big Ten regular-season title since 1996. But wins over two of the conference's worst teams did little to demonstrate the caliber of these new-look Boilers.
"It's still a work in progress," Painter said. "When you lose a guy that plays major minutes and really helps you on both ends of the floor, its not going to automatically be OK."
Prior to his injury, the 6-foot-8 Hummel was averaging 15.7 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds while playing 31.3 minutes, and his .364 percentage from behind the arc is the highest of any Boilermaker. He and classmates E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson accounted for nearly two-thirds of Purdue's scoring.
Not coincidentally, the Minnesota and Michigan State games marked the Boilers' lowest-scoring games of the season.
For the Indiana game, Painter switched to a four-guard lineup, promoting speedy 5-9 sophomore Lewis Jackson, now recovered from foot surgery that sidelined him the first 19 games, and 6-4 senior Keaton Grant, a sporadic scorer. It's a testament to Purdue's experience level that both have started in previous seasons.
The Boilers' offense flowed much more smoothly the past two games, with first senior forward Chris Kramer (18 points against Indiana) then Grant (17 points against Penn State) stepping up to deliver season-high scoring outputs.
"They still have some very, very good players, they're still executing offensively, they're still guarding the heck out of you defensively," Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. "Where they miss Robbie a little bit more is rebounding the ball "
That's an understatement.
In four games without Hummel (including Minnesota), the Boilers are averaging just 24.5 rebounds, a staggeringly low number. Michigan State outrebounded them 44-16 and Indiana held a 33-24 edge before Purdue claimed a 29-27 advantage over the Nittany Lions.
"[Michigan State] was our first game without Rob and people were still trying to get accustomed to new roles. It was difficult," said Jackson. "Everybody on this team and across the nation knows what Robbie brings to the table, but I think it's brought guys closer together."
The Boilers' Big Ten quarterfinal game will be Friday night against either Northwestern or Indiana, with a possible semifinal game against third seed Michigan State after that.
Only a week prior to Hummel's injury, Purdue went into Columbus and knocked off Big Ten tournament top seed Ohio State, 60-57. Could it beat an opponent of that caliber today? If so, it will require an unorthodox approach.
Final Four-caliber teams generally have at least three reliable scorers. Current projected top seeds Kansas (Sherron Collins, Xavier Henryand Cole Aldrich), Kentucky (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson), Syracuse (Wesley Johnson, Andy Rautins and three others that average double-digits) and Duke (Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler) all fit that mold. The Boilers had that with the trio of Moore-Hummel-Johnson but will now have to make do with two go-to figures and a hodgepodge of role players.
And while guard play is often cited as the biggest key to postseason success, it's generally recommended to have at least some frontcourt presence. Besides the 6-foot-10 Johnson, none of Purdue's top eight contributors is taller than 6-5.
But the biggest hallmark of Purdue's success under Painter remains largely unaffected: defense. The Boilers rank 12th nationally in raw defensive efficiency of (90.1), according to Ken Pomeroy, and have remained within that range (between 81.1 and 103.8 the past four games) even without Hummel.
"I think we're one of best defensive teams in the country, and this time of year defense is so important," Johnson said. "We still have talented players on this team."
Painter said that at times, Hummel (who had surgery on Monday) has handled the setback better than his teammates. The staff is constantly prodding them to remain upbeat.
"You go through that period where you feel sorry for yourself as a player and coach. You've got to get over it," Painter said. "We're also excited. A lot of people don't think we can win without him and that's a challenge for us.
"We beat a lot of good teams this year. If [critics] come back and say you either did it with or without Robbie Hummel, well, so be it. Things happen."
Yes they do. But glory-starved Purdue fans are surely wondering, why did it have to happen this year?