When the Purdue men’s basketball team learned in the preseason that senior forward Robbie Hummel would miss the entire season with a knee injury, there were doubts about the team’s ability to live up to its lofty expectations.
Through 20 games, however, the Hummel-less Boilermakers have more than held their own.
As it arrives in Columbus to play No. 1 Ohio State, No. 12 Purdue sits at 17-3 and 6-1 in Big Ten play. Led by senior forward JaJuan Johnson’s 20 points and eight rebounds per game, the Boilermakers are just one game behind the undefeated Buckeyes in the conference standings.
Though it’s early, tonight’s game could have significant Big Ten regular-season title implications.
Battle of the big men
As good as Johnson has been for Purdue, freshman forward Jared Sullinger has been equally good for the Buckeyes. Though OSU coach Thad Matta said it will be a collective effort against Johnson on the defensive end, both Johnson and Sullinger figure to play a big role in their teams’ success tonight.
“The alarming thing about JaJuan is he makes such difficult shots,” senior guard Jon Diebler said. “I mean, if you watch film and watch the games he’s played, there are times where he’s got a hand or two hands in his face and he’ll just turn around and shoot it in. He’s a great player.”
If Sullinger’s performance in the Buckeyes’ first 20 games is any indication, however, this game’s importance won’t intimidate him. In OSU’s four games against ranked opponents, Sullinger has averaged nearly 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Sullinger’s success results from meticulous preparation, Matta said. And though he wouldn’t give many details, Matta said Sullinger might have picked up something that will help tonight.
“Jared is one of those guys who is very tuned in to scouting,” Matta said. “He asked a question (Monday) night that kind of blew my mind when he was listening to the film session.”
But Matta didn’t divulge any secrets.
“I can’t elaborate,” he said. “It’s double-secret information.”
Much like the Buckeyes, Purdue plays several upperclassmen who have been with the program for at least three years. OSU senior forward David Lighty said playing against Johnson, as well as Purdue senior guard E’Twaun Moore and others for so many years has bred a sense of familiarity between the two teams.
And with that familiarity, Lighty said, comes highly competitive basketball.
“There have been close games since day one, since everyone’s been here and since I’ve been here playing against them,” Lighty said. “We expect the same thing (tonight).”
Diebler said the teams should know what to expect.
“We’re both very familiar with each other just from the past years with the guys who’ve returned and the guys that have been around,” Diebler said. “I think that’s all it comes down to is who’s going to be able to execute their system both offensively and defensively.”
Another test for Craft
Buckeye freshman point guard Aaron Craft has been developing a reputation for his defense all season.
In two of OSU’s last three games, Craft has been matched up against two of the best point guards in the Big Ten and perhaps two of the best in the country. Though Illinois’ Demetri McCamey and Penn State’s Talor Battle are much more experienced than Craft, the two seniors struggled against the Buckeye freshman, going a combined 7 of 28 from the floor.
Tonight, against the Boilermakers, Craft will have his hands full again. Moore, who averages 18 points per game, will be joined in the backcourt by junior guard Lewis Jackson, who is coming off a career-high 19 points in Saturday’s win against Michigan State.
Though Matta referred to Jackson as one of Purdue’s several “X-factors,” he is confident in his own point guard.
“He’s got great feet, and he’s really, really strong — probably stronger than most people think,” Matta said of Craft. “You couple that with his mind and he’s a guy that loves to watch film and really zero in on anybody that he could be guarding. … But probably third and the most important thing is he wants to play defense, and that’s something that I think is unique.”
The Buckeyes’ and Boilermakers’ tipoff is scheduled for 9 p.m. tonight at the Schottenstein Center.