During a pickup game with Purdue teammates in late July, junior forward Robbie Hummel drove to the basket and made a layup. That would not have been noteworthy except that eight months earlier, in the Boilermakers' loss to Oklahoma, Hummel made a similar play and felt a sharp pain in his lower back. It turned out that he had a stress fracture in his L-5 vertebrae, which would force him to miss five games. So when he didn't feel a thing while making the same move last summer, Hummel breathed a sigh of relief. "That was one of those moments," he says, "when I realized I was finally O.K."

The good news for Purdue is that last season's primary topic of conversation—Hummel's back—is now a headline with a different meaning entering the 2009--10 campaign. Though the Boilermakers won 27 games and the Big Ten tournament title, and then reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000, they were 1--3 in league games that Hummel missed. Often the uncertainty of his availability forced coach Matt Painter to prepare two game plans for each opponent, one in case Hummel could play and one in case he couldn't. Hummel not only had a pain-free summer, but he also excelled for the U.S. at the World University Games. "This summer was great for his confidence," Painter says.

For Purdue to get to its first Final Four in 30 years, it needs E'Twaun Moore (42.2% from the field) and Keaton Grant (34.9% from three-point range) to regain their scoring touches and jet-quick point guard Lewis Jackson to improve on his 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

As an added incentive, a trip to the Final Four would be a short one: The site of the 2010 national championship is Indianapolis, just 61 miles away. Says Hummel, "I don't think there's a player in the country who wouldn't want that. We're looking forward to getting after it."

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE

Coach

Matt Painter (5th season)

2008--09 record

27--10

Big 10

11--7 (T-2nd)

NCAA tournament

Sweet 16

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POS. PLAYER HT. CLASS KEY STATS
PG Keaton Grant 6'4" Sr. 7.9 ppg 1.9 apg
SG E'Twaun Moore 6'4" Jr. 13.8 ppg 3.0 apg
SG Chris Kramer 6'3" Sr. 5.2 ppg 2.5 apg
PF Robbie Hummel 6'8" Jr. 12.5 ppg 7.0 rpg
C JaJuan Johnson 6'10" Jr. 13.4 ppg 2.1 bpg
KEY RESERVE
PG Lewis Jackson 5'9" Soph. 5.9 ppg 3.3 apg

Returning starter (all six players started at least 20 games last season)

SCHEDULE

Nov. 13 Cal State--Northridge

Nov. 20 South Dakota State*

Nov. 21 Boston College or Saint Joseph's*

Nov. 28 Central Michigan

Dec. 1 Wake Forest

Dec. 5 Buffalo

Dec. 9 Valparaiso

Dec. 12 at Alabama

Dec. 19 Ball State†

Dec. 22 SIU-Edwardsville

Dec. 29 at Iowa

Jan. 1 West Virginia

Jan. 5 Minnesota

Jan. 9 at Wisconsin

Jan. 12 Ohio State

Jan. 16 at Northwestern

Jan. 19 at Illinois

Jan. 23 Michigan

Jan. 28 Wisconsin

Jan. 31 Penn State

Feb. 4 at Indiana

Feb. 9 at Michigan State

Feb. 13 Iowa

Feb. 17 at Ohio State

Feb. 20 Illinois

Feb. 24 at Minnesota

Feb. 27 Michigan State

March 2 Indiana

March 6 at Penn State

*Paradise Jam in St. Thomas (championship game on Nov. 23)

†Indianapolis

KEY GAME

The Boilermakers will start the New Year with an important test against a Big East power, West Virginia. A win would boost their confidence early in Big Ten play; a loss could leave them wondering if they were overhyped.

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PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHROBBIE HUMMEL Hopes for the school's first trip to the Final Four in 30 years begin with how well his bothersome back holds up. PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)