This just in: The Purdue Boilermakers really do miss Robbie Hummel... and as a result, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, amazingly and improbably, just might make a late backdoor run to the NCAA Tournament.
When Purdue lost Hummel, its star wing, to a right knee injury a few weeks ago, coach Matt Painter's club scored just 44 points in a home-court loss to Michigan State on Feb. 28. The Boilers rebounded to beat Penn State and Indiana to win a share of the Big Ten regular season title, but there were still questions about this team's ability to score. In Friday's quarterfinal against Northwestern, the Boilers were shaky, but they dug out a 69-61 win after five days off. It seemed reasonable to surmise that Purdue was rusty and would work its way into form.
Sure, this Saturday semifinal against coach Tubby Smith's men from Minnesota was not going to be easy. Hummel makes Purdue's offense much harder to defend, and it was Hummel's injury which enabled Minnesota to come within a point of knocking off the Boilermakers back on Feb. 25, before a late Keaton Grant jumper gave PU a 59-58 win in Minneapolis. This time, the Gophers would get Purdue for 40 minutes without Hummel, so Tubby's troops seemed likely to be in the thick of the fight.
What did not seem likely was that they'd cruise to a 27-point victory in a conference noted for its culture of cutthroat competition.
Big Ten basketball has consistently laid claim - and rightly so - to being a particularly physical test of holistic athletic prowess. The conference might not offer the most artful brand of ball, but no one can say that any night against any league team is ever a gimmie. Midwestern hoops has acquired a grinding, punishing style over time, which rewards the players who fight through screens and make slightly harder cuts than their opponents. Basketball is basketball no matter where it is played, but in the Big Ten, resilience and endurance are the qualities that are most commonly associated with the league's championship programs. Whereas a team like Villanova, in the Big East, relies on the shotmaking ability of its guards, and a team like Tennessee, in the SEC, relies on full-court pressure defense and a frenetic style of play, pretty much everyone in the Big Ten tries to do the same things better than anyone else.
You don't fool people in the Big Ten, you outwork them. Games aren't easily won or conceded. Winners usually have to work hard for each bucket and are rarely able to coast to victories in excess of 15 points, especially at tournament time.
Today, then, was as manifest exception.
Purdue - which evidently misses Hummel even more than the punditocracy already thought it did - simply couldn't hit the side of a barn in the first half of this futility-filled contest at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Boilermakers - and there's just no way to dress this up or talk around it - went 11 minutes and 20 seconds without scoring a point in the first stanza of Saturday's semifinal. Had Minnesota - with the shot clock turned off - chosen to run out the final 33 seconds of the first half, Purdue would have scored only nine points before halftime. However, because the Gophers attacked the basket early and drew a shooting foul with seven seconds left, the Boilermakers got a buzzer-beater from big man JaJuan Johnson to reach double digits by the hair of their chinny chin chin. Minnesota went to the locker room with a 37-11 bulge, and in light of the fact that Purdue never got closer than 18 points in the second half, it's fair to say that the first half truly decided this game, an unheard-of development for any Big Ten game, especially in a tournament setting.
Johnson - he of the first-half buzzer beater - and reserve guard D.J. Byrd combined to hit 11 of 23 shots for Purdue, many of them in garbage time when the outcome had already been decided. Nevertheless, those two Boilers actually remembered how to shoot. The rest of their teammates, on the other hand, made just 5 of 33 shots. Minnesota committed 16 turnovers and hit only two 3-pointers, but by hitting 48 percent of their shots, the Gophers delivered more than enough offense on a day when Purdue produced a pronounced stinker.
The Gophers will take on Ohio State in Sunday's Big Ten final. Minnesota might now be in the NCAA Tournament due to a pair of high-value wins this weekend in Indianapolis, all while most bubble teams have trended downward in recent weeks and have allowed Tubby Smith's team to stay alive. The percentages say that Minnesota is on the good side of the bubble, but as the examples of Washington and San Diego State have shown, it's always best to lock up the automatic bid and relieve the need for an at-large selection. Minnesota just needs to rest. Ohio State dealt with a double-overtime semifinal win against Illinois, so if the Gophers have enough legs of their own, they should be able to stay with the Buckeyes for 40 minutes.