When asked by ESPN.com for a prediction earlier this week, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo picked rival Purdue to win the national title.
And why not?
If Izzo had to pick a national contender other than the Spartans, the Boilermakers made sense since they returned a rarity these days -- three senior all-Big Ten players in forward Robbie Hummel, center JaJuan Johnson and guard E’Twaun Moore.
Hummel was healthy and ready to play this season after suffering a torn right ACL on Feb. 24 at Minnesota. Late Friday night, during ESPNU’s Midnight Madness coverage, he told ESPN.com that he was close to being 100 percent back. Hummel also discussed how he has had to deal with severe injuries in his career, from a back injury that made him skip practices and opt for just games as a sophomore, to the ACL as a junior.
Less than 24 hours later, Hummel tore the right ACL on the first full practice Saturday morning in West Lafayette and is done for the season, likely ending the Boilermakers’ national and Big Ten title hopes and clearly pushing them out of the top 10 for the foreseeable future (they were No. 2 in my preseason poll Friday).
Without Hummel, Purdue was able to get to the Sweet 16 before losing to Duke in Houston. But the Boilermakers had defensive stopper Chris Kramer on that team, too. Kramer was a senior, so now the Boilers have to replace two, not just one, of the most important pieces of last season’s title contender.
“When I heard it this morning, it brought tears to my eyes,’’ said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. “He tore up his knee here last year. He’s such a sweet kid, a special young man. He’s got so much going for him. I just feel bad for him and his teammates. Purdue was as good a team as any in the country.’’
Smith said that with Hummel the Boilermakers had the total package to compete for the title.
“They had JaJuan who could block shots, E’Twaun Moore as good a perimeter player as anyone and Robbie Hummel, who was like the kid [Butler’s Gordon] Hayward,’’ Smith said. “I thought he was better than the kid from Butler.’’
Hummel was selected by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who chairs the USA Basketball junior national teams, to the World University Games team that won a bronze medal in July 2009. The team was coached by Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan. Naturally, the reaction from Boeheim and Ryan was similar to Smith’s.
“It’s such a horrific thing because that kid has worked so hard to get back,’’ Boeheim said. “Obviously I feel bad for Purdue, but it’s devastating for the kid. He is a tremendous player, an all-American that could be a first-team all-American. Purdue is a preseason top four or five team. He played for his country and for this to happen to him two years in a row is just an awful thing. It’s hard to describe.’’
Boeheim said Hummel made the Boilermakers a national title contender.
“In a second, things change,’’ Boeheim said. “We lost a key guy before the tournament [Arinze Onuaku] and so did Purdue [with Hummel], so who knows what would have happened for us and for them if we were healthy. I feel bad for him because it’s so hard to come back from that. It’s a tough surgery and then six to seven months of tough rehab.’’
Ryan echoed those thoughts.
“He has done all the right things and it just goes to show how unfair things are at times,’’ he said. “If anybody though can handle the adversity it is him. He’s such a tough-minded young man. He loves the game so much. He’s been good to the game.’’
Wisconsin, like the Gophers, will benefit from Hummel’s absence in the Big Ten race. Michigan State will now be the clear front-runner for the Big Ten title with Ohio State and Illinois in contention while Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern possibly compete for a top-five finish.
Purdue’s toughest two nonconference games are both on the road, at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1 and at West Virginia on Jan. 16. In the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, the Boilermakers still play Michigan State, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois twice.
Ryan still thinks Purdue is one of a number of teams that could win the national title and isn’t ready to give up on the Boilermakers’ chances.
“Purdue still has the ability to do that,’’ Ryan said. “I know it hurts the percentages, but there are so many things that have to happen to win it and you hate to project. They were one of the teams that had the tools to advance deep. They were one of those teams that no doubt had an opportunity to compete and win six games [in the NCAAs] and win it all. They had the experience inside and outside. I know it’s still going to be really tough in our league.’’